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Fit to fight: one fighter wing at a time

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, is a physical therapist assigned to the 633rd Medical Operations Squadron, but has been embedded part time with the 1st Fighter Wing to help increase mission effectiveness.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, is a physical therapist assigned to the 633rd Medical Operations Squadron, but has been embedded part time with the 1st Fighter Wing to help increase mission effectiveness. Jilek is embedded because due to flight schedules and the hospital’s hours of operation, it is difficult for pilots to get the care they need for some of their injuries. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tristan Biese)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, examines Maj. Seth Rumbarger, 71st Fighter Squadron T-38 Talon pilot, at Joint Base Langley Eustis, Virginia, Nov. 13, 2019.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, examines Maj. Seth Rumbarger, 71st Fighter Squadron T-38 Talon pilot, at Joint Base Langley Eustis, Virginia, Nov. 13, 2019. For now, Jilek just focuses on pilots and their injuries. Down the road she would like to be able to help all personnel in the wing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tristan Biese)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, performs dry needling on Maj. Seth Rumbarger, 71st Fighter Squadron T-38 Talon pilot, at Joint Base Langley Eustis, Virginia, Nov. 13, 2019.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, performs dry needling on Maj. Seth Rumbarger, 71st Fighter Squadron T-38 Talon pilot, at Joint Base Langley Eustis, Virginia, Nov. 13, 2019. The physical therapy program doesn’t just benefit the pilot but the 1st FW’s mission as a whole by making pilots fit to fight, thus optimizing the human weapons system. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tristan Biese)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, examines Capt. Breck Stewart, 71st Fighter Squadron T-38 Talon pilot, at Joint Base Langley Eustis, Virginia, Nov. 13, 2019.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, examines Capt. Breck Stewart, 71st Fighter Squadron T-38 Talon pilot, at Joint Base Langley Eustis, Virginia, Nov. 13, 2019. Jilek still performs her duties as a physical therapist Monday through Thursday as part of the 633rd MDOS, but spends her time after hours and all day Friday at the 1st FW providing treatment to pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tristan Biese)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

As aviators know proper maintenance of aircraft is key to providing combat capabilities. Just as aircraft need to be maintained and ready to fly, optimizing the human weapon system is also critical. Pilots themselves must be healthy and ready to fight tonight.

To ensure pilots are ready at a moment’s notice, the 1st Fighter Wing has embedded U.S. Air Force Capt. Michelle Jilek, a physical therapist with the 633rd Medical Operations Squadron to help increase mission effectiveness.

“Ninety-six percent of the pilots at Langley were flying in pain without treatment, because they didn't have the availability to go to a clinic,” said Jilek. “That’s why I’m here.” 

While she still performs her duties as a physical therapist Monday through Thursday as part of the 633rd MDOS, Jilek spends her time after hours and all day Friday at the 1st FW providing treatment to pilots.

Due to flight schedules and the hospital’s hours of operation, it is difficult for pilots to get the care they need for some of their injuries.

“Embedded care is kind of where the military is going,” said Jilek. “The Army has done a lot more than the Air Force and the Navy. But getting units to have their own medical team makes more sense.”

According to Jilek, through flight and certain maneuvers, pilots encounter G-forces also known as Gs. For each G, the amount of weight is multiplied onto the pilot which includes their own weight and the weight of their gear. The F-22 Raptor can easily pull nine Gs, while the T-38 Talon can reach up to seven Gs, they usually stay around five to five and a half.

“It only takes about 40 to 45 seconds to compress your spine by a couple of millimeters when you're under those high forces,” said Jilek. “The more and more flights that you do, the more and more it's going to be affecting the spine.”

Not only is Jelik treating the pilots’ injuries, she is also training them in preventative measures. She teaches the pilots about different neck, spine and other exercises to strengthen the parts of the body that are prone to injury during flight.

“By being in here, I've gotten pilots removed from the DNIF [duties not including flying list] just from visiting me a couple times and I've fixed people's issues that they've had for years in one treatment,” said Jilek. “Almost all the injuries in here are spine-related, either in the lower back or the upper back because of G forces.”

The physical therapy program doesn’t just benefit the pilot but the 1st FW’s mission as a whole by making pilots fit to fight, thus optimizing the human weapons system.

“[Injuries] affect the flying schedule and pilot availability to the point where if it happens over and over, it can be a long-term problem,” said Lt. Col. Cheryl Buehn, 71st Fighter Squadron director of operations. “You need your body at its hundred percent to do the job, if you're broken, then that sortie doesn't go.”

For now, Jilek just focuses on pilots and their injuries. Down the road she would like to be able to help all personnel in the wing.

According to Jilek, the 1st FW is one of few fighter wings across the Air Force that has an embedded physical therapist. For Jilek, embedded medical personnel is the way of the future and she, along with many of 1st FW pilots, would like to see this program adopted across the Air Force.

“For me it’s is a lot of back, neck and shoulder issues but she’s been a huge help and I hope this program catches on,” said Buehn. “I hope this program ignites not just the treatment, but the preventative side of physical therapy and taking care of our bodies.”

The 1st Fighter Wing is responsible for one-third of the Air Force's combat F-22 Raptors, leading the way in combat capability and lethality in current operations worldwide. One physical therapist can not only make a difference in pilots’ health but the mission capabilities of an entire fighter wing, aiding in their ability serve as America's premier Air Dominance wing.