How fighter jet pilots have high G . to resist

In the new Top Gun: Maverick movie, pilots zigzag through the air at stomach-churning speeds. Tom Cruise’s character, Captain “Maverick” Pete Mitchell, continues to shock fellow pilots with his prowess and daring antics after 30 years on the job.

Maverick flies an F-18 fighter jet in the film, an aircraft that can reach more than 1,000 miles per hour. How do real pilots deal with massive forces involved in flying so fast?

I’ve had a taste of what happens to your body when you fly a fighter jet. I was in a small cockpit with four times normal gravity pushing me down when another violent maneuver pushed me deep into my seat. The muscles became so tired that I could no longer function, my vision started to go gray and I realized I was losing control.

I can’t remember what happened next, but video footage from the cockpit shows me passing out and collapsing, held up only by my armor.

Bradley Elliott experiencing high G.

Fortunately, this wasn’t while I was in control of a multi-million pound powerful jet fighter trying to outsmart my opponent in a high-speed duel. I sat in a training faculty on the ground for military pilots as a guinea pig. Think of a merry-go-round spinning, but much, much faster, then expand it so it’s the size of a bus, and you’ve got a human centrifuge. I was strapped to the outside of this, tested as part of a study on the effect of high gravity (high G) on the human body. I failed this test in a way that would have crashed and killed everyone on board if I had flown a jet.

What is high G?

We are held to the Earth’s surface by gravity. This force can be quantified as one unit of gravity (1G). When you change direction quickly (think about riding a roller coaster or cornering a car), you can feel the centrifugal force (acting on an object moving in circles) and push you out. It adds to the gravity acting on you. I lost consciousness after about 15 seconds on 4G (or four times the normal gravity pressing on me) when this extra force overcame my blood pressure’s ability to move blood from my heart to my brain.

Formally known as gravity-induced loss of consciousness, pilots refer to this as “Gloc”, pronounced “gee-lock”.

The retinal cells at the back of your eye are particularly sensitive to low blood pressure. That’s why one of the first signs that Gloc is about to appear was loss of color vision (greyout) before complete loss of vision (blackout). The next symptom was brain hypoxia – a complete loss of consciousness due to a lack of blood supply and thus oxygen to the brain. About 15-20% of Royal Air Force fighter pilots have experienced Gloc at least once in their careers. When you wake up, your muscles contract uncontrollably and you are disoriented. Your neurons fire wildly as your brain tries to figure out what you just did and why.

Why pilots high G . be able to resist

Powerful pilots train at facilities like the centrifuge I was in and learn how close they can get to the edge, recognize the symptoms of grayout and blackout, and when to back off. Pilots also learn anti-gravity maneuvers. These are a special series of contractions that squeeze the muscles of their abdominal core and thighs, physically pushing blood toward their heart to supply the brain with precious oxygen. Pilots wear anti-gravity suits, which automatically squeeze their legs when performing particularly violent maneuvers to help push blood toward the heart.

With training and practice, pilots can withstand more than twice the G-force that made me pass out. This is physically exhausting training, similar to working out to the max in a gym. But it can make all the difference in a high stakes duel, where spinning your jet faster than your opponent is life or death. Military pilots are encouraged to keep fit as muscle strength aids in G tolerance.

Fighter planes are a long way from the relative comfort of overcrowded budget airlines. Rapidly changing gravitational loads on fighter pilots can lead to severe back and neck pain due to the constantly varying gravity, and delicate areas of pilots’ lungs can even temporarily collapse under high gravitational loads.

Pilots must also master the mental aspects of high-performance flying. Controlling your own jet is a relentless math challenge that fighter pilots must master as they try to outsmart their opponents in a fast-paced 3D chess game.

Top Gun: Maverick

What does that mean for 57-year-old Maverick in his latest adventure? As we age, our body deteriorates in all kinds of physical functions. This includes all individual aspects of our cardiovascular system that works continuously to properly oxygenate our brains. While it would be reasonable to assume that Maverick wouldn’t be able to pull the same G’s as his younger self, that could be incorrect.

There isn’t much data on older high-performance pilots, but there are some hints suggesting that aging may be somewhat beneficial for G tolerance, possibly due to higher blood pressure and slightly stiffer arteries seen with age. Since G-tolerance can be learned through experience, it may just be that older pilots adapt better through years of training.

That said, increased strength and muscle mass also seems to help with G-tolerance, and we tend to lose muscle mass and strength with age. Older athletes retain more muscle mass and strength with age than untrained older individuals, so if Maverick still plays a lot of beach volleyball and keeps up with his flying hours, he may be able to outperform his younger self.

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