Extreme Heat!

  • Published
  • By Capt James D. Went
  • 40TH Airlift Squadron
On a recent deployment to Southwest Asia, aircrews dealt with a stifling heat wave as they attempted to complete their tasks. In some areas, the temperature climbed above 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity added to the suffocating heat, and launching sorties became particularly difficult. 

In a C-130 squadron, flight engineers and loadmasters working day-shift duty crew accomplished many pre-flights with the sun beating down on them. While aircrews readied themselves for potentially hazardous combat support missions in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, these duty crews spent the better part of a morning or afternoon inspecting and pre-flighting airplanes. Some eventually lost their individual battles with the summer heat and ended their day in a hospital bed. 

Dehydration and other heat-related ailments members working duty crew or simply pre-flighting their own aircraft before takeoff experienced tremendous difficulty, and many ended up with more than one bag of fluid fed into their bodies intravenously after a trip to the base hospital. This problem severely degraded many squadrons' ability to complete their missions and limited commanders' options for selecting aircrews for each mission. More importantly, it caused people to become ill and suffer extreme pain and discomfort. 

The problem is one without a simple solution. Aircrews, maintenance, and anyone exposed to the heat are instructed to drink plenty of water. Water is readily available in every tent and building. We know that our supervisors and commanders are proud of us when the mission is complete and everything gets done on time. Sometimes this leads to overexertion in the name of completing our tasks and completing that mission. Work-rest cycles are announced throughout the day, and air-conditioned tents are available for those trying to cool off after working diligently in the heat. But, when it comes right down to it, people need to take care of themselves. 

During deployment, everyone's priority is to complete the mission. We all take pride in it and work toward that goal each day. It is the best and most rewarding part about being deployed, and we make sacrifices in order to reach our goals. Work-rest cycles are a nuisance. We hear them announced all day long, they clutter our e-mail in-boxes, and they are usually redundant. But, if adhered to, they will provide a measure of defense against heat-related ailments and prevent a trip to the hospital. 

We all think we drink enough water, but do we really? Dehydration is difficult to predict. Sometimes we drink a lot of water during the downtime, when we spend half our days or nights in the chow hall, but then forget to continue drinking water during the workday. Other times, we become intensely focused on our work and refuse to stop to drink water until our task is complete. A few minutes of rest and shade in the middle of a pre-flight or maintenance detail can sometimes make all the difference. Drinking water and attempting to adhere to work-rest cycles are ways to help alleviate the problem, but I don't think they truly get at the source. When it comes to fighting the heat, our primary defense against dehydration and other ailments is our attitude. 

If we step back and look at the big picture, our mentality may be a little different. Of course we want to contribute to the mission, and of course our supervisors and commanders are happy when we complete our tasks on time. But they are happier
when no one gets hurt and all their people are healthy. It's much more difficult to get the job done when aircrew members are sick and support staff are injured. Accidents happen occasionally, and we all have to pitch in to make up for the temporary loss of a co-worker or fellow aircrew member. But heat-related illnesses are avoidable if we take the necessary precautions. Supervisors and commanders will accept a late takeoff or an airplane that requires extra time for maintenance if it means one less individual they have to visit in the hospital because of the heat. 

Those who have suffered in the summer heat know that protecting themselves is easier said than done. An average summer day in the United States is much different from most in Southwest Asia; we don't typically see the thermometer top out at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. When that does happen, we have to be willing to cut back even further on our amount of continuous work, take more breaks, and put more effort into staying cool and being hydrated. Extreme temperatures can cause heat-related sickness quickly, and before you even recognize the symptoms, it may be too late. We can take actions, however, to minimize this risk. 

It's also important to recognize the symptoms of any heat-related ailment. If you become dizzy or lightheaded or begin to experience muscle cramps or headaches, stop what you're doing and find a cool place to relax and hydrate yourself. Ask your flight surgeon, physician or other medical staff what to look for and how best to avoid succumbing to the heat. You can also learn more on Web sites, such as www.rehydrate.org or www.medicinenet.com

Extreme heat is one of the many hazards we face during deployments. Inevitably, there will be heat-related illnesses, but we can't allow this problem to reach its potential,
becoming dangerous and deadly and causing permanent damage. Simple dehydration and sunburn can lead to more serious illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke. If we work together and keep people informed, we can limit the amount of damage that high temperatures can do.