Well, actually it is only part of the Red Baron’s legacy which lives on. This part has to do with his cockpit bucket seat which basically hasn’t changed much until recently (and still hasn’t changed much) There are few occupations in which individuals are forced to suffer non-ergonomic seating for long periods of time subjecting their spines to continued compressional and vibrational effects. Back pain is an occupational disease among pilots. One would think that concerns regarding pain and discomfort on the part of pilot seating would be readily addressed because these factors do indeed translate directly into issues of passenger safety. This has not been the case in the airline industry. Quite remarkably similar problems in the trucking industry were addressed long ago by the introduction of ergonomically designed pneumatic seating.
This image demonstrates a air-suspension and vibration absorbing seat designed for trucking. The seating is ergonomically designed and has been in common use since 1990.
The Burton Experience has been that although the airline manufacturers have long been aware of these issues and have also been provided with effective solutions they have chosen to basically ignore this important matter. Not many individuals are aware that the seated position is inherently non-physiologic because the spine is loaded and the support muscles are relaxed. A much more spine-friendly position is squatting or “hunkering” where the spine is not loaded and good muscle tone is thus constantly maintained. Although squatting is a inherent part of many cultures throughout the world today (and was frequently practiced by Native Americans) it is not something often seen in Western cultures.
It is all-to-clear that long periods of compressional loading directed to the spine (i.e. New York to Tokyo is a “routine” 14 hour flight) constitutes significant insult being directed to a pilot’s spine. If a pilot’s spine is abnormal to start with (i.e. conditions such as a genomic spine disorder) permanent and irreversible injury can result. There can be little doubt but that constant compressional loading directed to the spine is not a healthy situation. The problem is magnified by lack of sleep because sleep is a critical factor in repairing overtaxed muscles. The issue of adequate pilot sleep is another important issue which is not being given proper attention. In fact the revision of crew berths on McDonnell Douglas MD-11s has led to cramped new quarters leading to documented cases of pilot seating experiencing sleep deprivation.
Studies have shown that it is possible to design cockpit seating for pilot seating which allows for ergonomic as well as eugonomic seating capable of eliminating pilot spine fatigue and injury. Another important issue, of great concern, relates to ejection seats in military aircraft. When a fighter pilot deal ejects from a cockpit they are actually being fired from ejection rockets located under the seat. These seats have no cushioning to maintain direct contact with the pilot’s body. Although the lack of cushioning is intended to reduce spine injury the price of
survival is not infrequently that of significant spine insult or trauma. Vertebral compression fractures resulting from ejection are the proof of this.
Seating studies have demonstrated that by designing pilot seating so that there is also engagement of the rib cage the force of ejection can be distributed to a much greater area of the body thus helping to avoid significant spinal injury. In addition, better ergonomic designs can allow for cyclic decompression and distraction of the intervertebral discs thus enhancing disc nutrition and spine health.
External impactors on the airline manufacturers, airlines, and the military have not yet been sufficient to influence them to make a meaningful investment in this technology. The good news is that the Red Baron’s legacy (and that of his colleagues) remains in our thoughts.