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Combat veteran Sen. Joni Ernst says her experience in Kuwait and Iraq didn’t prepare her for what she experienced on a fact-finding trip to a naval flight station.

“It was a terrifying experience for me. I’ll be honest about that,” Ernst, who retired from service as an Iowa Army National Guard lieutenant colonel after 23 years, said Tuesday about participating in flight training exercises at Naval Station Norfolk to learn about physiological episodes jet fighter pilots experience.

It wasn’t just the “death by PowerPoint” presentations Ernst sat through before passing a swim test in flight gear and flying along as a Navy pilot practiced landing an F-18 Super Hornet on an aircraft carrier.

Ernst made the trip over the past weekend to gain more information in support of her amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. It would require the Secretary of the Navy to provide quarterly updates on the progress of the Navy’s Physiological Episode Team and their efforts to combat physiological episodes in jets.

According to the Navy, physiological episodes occur when aircrew experience a decrease in performance due to the cabin pressure fluctuations, contamination of breathing air or other factors in the flight environment.

The experience changed her mind about the reports of flight students refusing to fly because of the physiological effects of flight at supersonic speeds.

“When I heard reports of students refusing to fly it was like, ‘Shame on them,’ ” Ernst told reporters on a conference call. However, after going through oxygen deprivation simulations and the flights, the chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee said she understands “it is a very real thing.”

To learn what pilots sometimes experience, Ernst donned an oxygen mask and her oxygen level was reduced to simulate hypoxia — a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues.

“My face got hot and flushed. My fingers started tingling and got numb. My legs started tingling. It was very hard to concentrate,” Ernst said. “It was horrible.”

She experienced nothing like that while leading the Iowa Army National Guard 1168th Transportation Company in Kuwait and southern Iraq and serving as a protection detail outside Camp Arifjan in Kuwait in 2003 and 2004.

“Sandstorms were the worst thing ... and then you just pulled over on the side of the road,” Ernst said with a laugh.

Her experience put the physiological effects in perspective.

“One. I’m not an aviator, but to be flying a high-dollar jet at supersonic speed to go through an episode like that and know how to respond to that and land safely or get to a point where you can get the appropriate level of oxygen, it was a very good demonstration,” Ernst said.

Learning how to prevent hypoxia and how to deal with it are important for the safety of pilots, as well as the very expensive jets they fly, Ernst said.

“So, one, if we can save a life, and, two, if we can save the equipment, we have to do it,” she said.

It was important to experience the physiological impact firsthand, Ernst said, so she can tell others “this is a very real issue and we’ve got to get it fixed.”

“We’re going to stay on top of this until we find a fix,” Ernst said, adding she believes all members of the Senate Armed Services Committee support her amendment.


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