Physiology and Cognition in Paragliding at Moderate and Extreme Altitudes
Pilot Tom de Dorlodot flying high in the Karakorum during Phase I, with oxygen and logging pulse oximeter on his right arm.
We hope to understand the physiological and cognitive effects of flying paragliders to improve pilot safety and performance. At the same time, we are also trying to gather improved epidemiological data on accidents, incidents and near-misses and to develop protocols for managing downed pilots. Finally, we are working with comparative physiologists to draw parallels between human and animal flight.
In Phase I (2016-2017) we measured baseline physiology in pilots flying up to 7,458 m altitude, completing the first ever in-flight cardiopulmonary exercise testing during cross-country and acrobatic (SIV) manoeuvres. The work has been published in High Altitude Medicine and Biology, available here, and in Cross Country Magazine.
Phase II began in Spring 2018, when used the data from our field studies to simulate the paragliding environment with high fidelity in the University of Portsmouth Extreme Environment Laboratory, undertaking tests of performance, including markers of cognition and safety behaviour under cold and hypoxia. The results are currently being analysed.
Paragliding accidents are often severe and remote, and fellow pilots are usually first on scene. Our first Paragliding Trauma Management course took place in January 2018, covering group dynamics, field management of major trauma and integration into rescue systems.
Researcher Matt Wilkes testing the Metamax portable metabolic system over Laragne-Monteglin, France.
What the advantages of paragliding for hypoxia research?
Unlike mountaineers, paragliders are exposed to hypoxia over acute timescales, climbing at 1-10 m.sec-1 in thermal updrafts and reaching heights above 8000 m, without days of acclimatisation and often without supplementary oxygen. Pilots do this with minimal physical input, sat suspended in a harness below the paraglider wing and able to wear instrumentation, removing the confounding effects of exercise. They are also completely exposed to ambient conditions (cold, wind, noise, G forces and hypobaric hypoxia), adding realism without the need for extreme physical fitness, and so opening the studies up to a wider range of subjects. Paragliding is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than research using hypobaric chambers or powered aircraft.
We believe that paragliding has the potential to be the most appropriate, inclusive, cost-effective and environmentally sound analogue with which to study a wide range of healthy volunteers in hypoxic environments.
What are the potential benefits of the research?
The setting in which paraglider pilots fly and in which accidents occur, is unique among mountain and air sports: the slow and demanding climbing of mountaineering, the protected flight of an enclosed sailplane, and the explosive decompression of a failing fighter plane do not replicate the experiences, risks, and challenges of paragliding. There is almost no literature directly relating to paragliding physiology; however, there is a great deal of relevant work that may translate from allied disciplines: aviation medicine; accident investigation; altitude and temperature physiology; avalanche science, as well as human factors.
Paragliding is cognitively demanding, for example: reading the landscape for thermal triggers and calculating glide angles, while remaining sufficiently spatially aware to pilot a craft though an invisible three-dimensional air mass, often containing other gliders in close proximity; in cold, hypoxic, ever-changing and sometimes intimidating conditions. Competition and acrobatic flying are more demanding still.
Paragliding has become much safer over time but remains a high-risk pursuit. Most accidents are secondary to errors of piloting or judgement, rather than equipment failure. When accidents do occur, the consequences are often severe or fatal and we hypothesise that hypoxia and environmental exposure play their part. Understanding the physiological demands on placed on pilots is therefore key to establishing systems to prevent injury or loss of life.
Oxygen has profoundly affected the distribution of life on earth. Lack of oxygen at altitude and in the deep sea has driven adaptions across the spectrum of ecology: from invertebrates living on hydrothermal vents to birds migrating across the high Himalayas. Hypobaric hypoxia, the diminishing levels of oxygen at altitude, means that one third of people who climb above 2500m for work, pilgrimages or travel (approximately 140 million people per year) may suffer symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Up to 5% will develop life-threatening high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral oedema (HACE).
Hypoxia underpins critical illness at sea-level: the outcomes of heart attacks, strokes, traumatic brain injury, acute asthma and pneumonia all depend on precise management of oxygen delivery. Understanding the pathophysiology of hypoxia is the key to developing novel intervention points and refining treatment pathways in critical care.
The project will refine the use of novel telemetry and wearable technology in austere environments, informing future studies in other spheres of human and animal free flight.
Finally, the project brings together animal biology, altitude physiology, aviation and space medicine, biomechanics and biotelemetry researchers to conduct fundamental studies in a singularly demanding environment. We hope it will serve as a springboard for a variety exciting projects in the future.