The TITAN arena initiative: HPT prioritizes pilot health

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dominic Tyler
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Effectively operating a Fourth or Fifth-Generation fighter jet requires the human body to surpass extraordinary physical and mental heights. Spending hours upon hours strapped into the confined space of a cockpit, fighter pilots endure a constant barrage of extreme G-force at dangerous altitudes over the span of their careers. Aside from the physical and mental demands of flight, pilots also juggle the requirements of a high-performance profession, including leadership responsibilities and administrative duties as all while juggling family and personal life.

According to Headquarters Air Force, training a fighter pilot with 2,000 flight hours costs between $65-100M. With this in mind, a 2020 Air Combat Command survey reported that 98% of fighter pilots experience neck and back pain, with 89% of those reporting significant mission impact. Additionally, 51% of pilots reported fly rate reductions and 69% reported that their neck and back injuries were an influential factor in their future career decisions.

In the midst of a potential pilot retention crisis, the 56th Fighter Wing Human Performance Team was established in 2019; pioneering innovative strategies to increase the performance, lethality, and longevity at the world’s largest fighter wing. Since its inception, the HPT has made a demonstrable impact on the 56FW and 944FW pilot culture.

“In my nearly 20 years of service I have never seen a military support program generate as much excitement, interest, and benefits for fighter pilots,” said Maj. Jared Marvin, 944th Operations Group F-35 instructor pilot. “This realization inspired my master’s thesis, where I proved that all the physical, mental, and social modalities offered by a program such as Luke AFB’s Titan positively affected retention among the fighter pilot career field.”

Directly across from the 56th FW Skip Hopler Fighter Training Center, the HPT resides within a 13,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art facility known as the Tactical Integrated Training and Nutrition (TITAN) Arena. Consisting of 14 doctorate-level and career-certified care providers, specialists, and trainers that include active-duty members, civilians, and contractors. This small but impactful group provides personalized care to over 200 instructor and student pilots across 11 squadrons, including pilots from partner and allied nations.

“Even at the world’s largest fighter wing, the small size of the HPT doesn’t hinder our worldwide impact,” said Maj. Michelle Jilek, 56th Training Squadron Human Performance Team commander. “The pilot surveys and the rising performance numbers over the years are evidence of our impact on the morale and health of our fighter pilots.”

With embedded medical professionals, the HPT program has changed the support paradigm for fighter pilots, dispelling previous reluctance to seek medical assistance and offering immediate access to medical care. Survey results attest to this shift in attitude, with a notable increase in pilots engaging with medical professionals, averaging 215 appointments monthly. The HPT adapts to a pilot’s erratic schedule providing support at a moment’s notice. The availability of embedded care has led to significant improvements for pilot health, reducing the average wait time for specialized treatment from up to 32 days, down to same-day appointments. This personalized care from HPT has reduced instructor pilot sortie fall out by 20-25% annually and increased readiness resulting in a Programmed Flight Training increase of over 250 sorties per year.

Moreover, the HPT offers a range of essential resources, including strength and conditioning, cognitive training, and dietary services, ensuring pilots maintain peak fitness and readiness to meet mission demands.

While providing quality health support with an average of 1,100 monthly touchpoints, the HPT also creates solutions to problems unique to the fighter pilot community. Researchers at the Titan Arena gather health and fitness data to produce scientific abstracts on various topics, such as grip and neck strength, aerobic fitness, hydration, and cognitive function. Recently, the team had two abstracts accepted at the prestigious 2023 Military Health System Research Symposium. Collaborating with institutions such as, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the 711th Human Performance Wing, Detachment-9, the Air Force Academy, and Ohio State University, they aim to enhance research efforts significantly.

The HPT’s devotion to pilot health and fitness alongside the rise in pilot performance coincides with the growing morale of pilots who have received care at the TITAN Arena over the years.

“Personally, I use the Titan multiple times a week and have seen benefits in my job performance and overall well-being,” said Marvin. “The Titan staff and its services have directly contributed to my decision to stay affiliated with the military because this program’s very existence demonstrates that the Air Force values me, my holistic wellness, and my service.”

Since 2019, the HPT at Luke AFB has committed to becoming the catalyst of evolution in fighter pilot culture, where physical and mental well-being are foundational to the tactical aviator. The Titan Arena stands as a beacon of dedication, demonstrating the value of our fighter pilots and ensuring they will remain faster, stronger, and more resilient for years to come.