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Altitude chamber elevates pilots in training at Polytechnic campus

Altitude chambers at ASU's Poly campus provide life-saving training to pilots.
ASU Aviation Program celebrates 20th anniversary.
December 20, 2016

ASU's Aviation Program has 1 of the only 3 heavy-duty altitude chambers in the nation that are available to civilians

In a nondescript building on a corner of Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus sits a pair of gray metal boxes that look like souped-up shipping containers.

They’re actually elaborate pieces of equipment belonging to the Aviation Program, but there’s more to it than that: These things go back to the days when men in silver suits skidded across space in cans.

Used by two Mercury Seven astronauts, U-2 spy pilots, the world-record parachutist who jumped from the edge of space and recently the SpaceX program, the heavy-duty altitude chambers simulate extreme conditions and help save lives.

This year is the Aviation Program’s 20th anniversary. It lucked out the day ASU acquired the former Williams Air Force Base, since it came with the chambers that students now have access to each semester. ASU has two altitude chambers: one for training and another for research. The research chamber is one of only threeThe others are at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City and the University of North Dakota. chambers in the country available to civilians. 

“No other aeronautical university — whether it’s the University of North Dakota or Embry-Riddle — can compete with the capabilities that we have here at Arizona State University,” said Ronald Diedrichs, aerospace physiologist and lecturer. Diedrichs operates the training chamber during sessions that could save a pilot’s life. 

Hypoxia is a condition that affects pilots when they fly at high altitudes above 10,000 feet. “Insidious” is the word aviators often use to describe it. Typical symptoms are lightheadedness, euphoria, tingling in the extremities and unconsciousness. Losing cognitive control while flying an airplane ends in crashes.

“It’s amazing how many people lose consciousness ... and don’t live through it,” Diedrichs said. “It’s not advertised very much.”

Over the past 25 years, there have been 46 crashes involving or possibly involving hypoxia, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Some were clearly caused by hypoxia. In others, there was no evidence beyond a pilot speaking with slurred speech and not obeying air traffic controllers’ commands before crashing.

In traditional aviation education, students learn about hypoxia, but not in a controlled environment where they can learn to recognize their personal symptoms.

“It’s that recognition of those subjective symptoms that can give early warning to a pilot that they need to lower their altitude or get supplemental oxygen,” said Marc O’Brien, aviation program director. “The training that they get here is better than they would get at an airline. The airlines don’t have these kinds of facilities.”

Diedrichs has flown 49 years safely. One memorable day flying over southern Colorado en route from Phoenix to a small city on the Kansas state line, the hypoxia training he received in the military kicked in.

“I’ve used the knowledge myself,” he said. “I looked down at my pulse oximeter that I always wear when I’m flying in an unpressurized airplane, and I saw I was really low on oxygen saturation. I immediately dialed my autopilot down to 11,500 feet — 1,000 feet per minute — hoping I would stay conscious. I did not expect that I would stay conscious. Everything worked, and I got down safely.”

Diedrichs is a professional pilot who is board-certified in aerospace physiology.

“My job No. 1 is to make sure it’s safe,” he said.

The first thing Diedrichs does during a training session is denitrogenate the chamber. About 80 percent of Earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen.

“If I take you to half an atmosphere, which is 18,000 feet, you would fizz, just like a soda would fizz,” he said. “It’s called decompression sickness.”

Subjects breath pure oxygen for at least 30 minutes before going to altitude. Instructors go into detail about how the oxygen equipment in the chamber works.

Once they’re at 25,000 feet, they take half the students off oxygen. The other half watches them while they undergo hypoxia.

“The objective is those that don’t have their masks on nail down in their minds what their symptoms are, because everyone gets different symptoms,” Diedrichs said. “They might not even go through the same symptoms, and that’s why the military has them go through the training every five years.”

They do an explosive decompression at 5,000 feet, like what you’d experience on an airliner if a window or door blew off. It’s an FAA-certified course.

The program charges per seat (at 16 seats) to use the main chamber, plus oxygen, per day. One session with a full crew, including an aerospace physiologist, two crew chiefs, an inside observer, driver and participants, can cost as much as $20,000.

“I’m trying to give them enough knowledge to fly for 50 years uneventfully and enjoy all of it,” Diedrichs said. “I call it life assurance training.”

The chamber has other applications besides flight, O’Brien pointed out. It’s a great research facility and resource for the private sector.

“We’ve had different clients come in; most recently, SpaceX has been in testing their space suits,” O’Brien said.

“We’ve had military come in for different things. We’ve had pharmaceutical companies to test things like insulin-delivery devices in a controlled environment. We can replicate the cabin-pressure altitudes of airliners, and also in situations with rapid or explosive decompression, so that these companies can test their devices and make sure they’re functional in all kinds of circumstances.”

Top photo: Kasey Stevenson, air transportation management student, and Nash Roney, professional flight student, get ready inside the Del E. Webb Foundation Altitude Chamber on the ASU Polytechnic campus. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Sex-trafficking survivor network aims to 'make a difference to this one'

ASU professor to join Phoenix in program to heal sex-trafficking survivors.
December 20, 2016

ASU expert helps Phoenix design therapies at new Starfish community, which offers housing, services to help rebuild lives

An Arizona State University professor is part of an innovative new program by the city of Phoenix to help survivors of sex trafficking find new lives.

The Phoenix City Council approved a plan Dec. 14 to provide housing and support services so victims can become self-sufficient and leave their abusive pasts.

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, will help city staff design the therapies for the 15 clients who are accepted into the program, called Phoenix Starfish Place. She works with many survivors and has run several focus groups, asking participants what they need most.

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz will help the city of Phoenix design therapeutic services for sex-trafficking survivors in a new housing program.

“What we’ve learned is that getting into sex trafficking is complicated, and getting out is equally as complicated,” said Roe-Sepowitz, who also is an associate professor in ASU’s School of Social Work.

“The constant drumbeat is that they need a place to live,” she said. Survivors frequently have criminal records because their traffickers also force them into robbery, shoplifting and other crimes.

“So our clients have a difficult time finding a safe place to live and a stable community where the neighbor isn’t a drug dealer or a pimp.”

The name comes from a popular motivational story in which a man sees tens of thousands of starfish stranded on a beach. When the man sees a small boy throwing individual starfish back into the sea, he tells the boy it won’t make much of a difference. The boy picks up a starfish and says, “It will make a difference to this one.”  

Services at Phoenix Starfish Place will include support groups and skills training for the survivors and their children, as well as prevention groups. Clients are expected to move in later this year.

“One of the big things that came out of the focus groups is that we know this is an intergenerational problem. Children of trafficking victims are significantly more likely to be trafficking victims themselves,” she said.

The community, which Roe-Sepowitz believes will be the first in the country, will be based on a “sanctuary model.”

“We know most of our clients who are trafficked come into that situation with lots of childhood trauma, maybe incarcerated parents. A sexual-abuse history is very prevalent, and emotional abuse,” she said. “The abusive relationship with the trafficker is very traumatic.

“The sanctuary model creates an environment and a community in which everyone understands the trauma related to this, and responds with that in mind,” said Roe-Sepowitz, who has already started training employees in the city’s housing department.

“Everyone involved will have an understanding of what trafficking is so they can serve these clients with dignity and respect.”

Gathering data

The average age of entry into sex trafficking is 14, according to ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. Many of the young people have a history of running away or drug abuse and may be lured by older “boyfriends,” who begin by offering affection and support before forcing victims into prostitution.

In Arizona, the law-enforcement and justice systems began changing their response to trafficking over the past decade, viewing young prostitutes as victims of traffickers rather than criminals. In 2013, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton created the Human Trafficking Task Force, charged with increasing both prevention and services. In 2014, the state beefed up penalties for traffickers and johns and helped to protect minors from criminalization.

The Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research was launched in ASU’s School of Social Work in 2013. Since then, the center has produced several research projects, including a paper released this month revealing the results of a three-year survey of 199 homeless young adults in Arizona that found that a third reporting being sex trafficked.

The office also explored the before- and after-effects of the 2015 Super Bowl in Glendale on sex trafficking in Phoenix. Their study found that the event itself does not necessarily increase sex trafficking, but that “traffickers will bring their victims wherever there is demand and money.”

In 2014, Roe-Sepowitz was part of a teamRoe-Sepowitz was awarded the funding, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children, Youth and Families, along with Judy Krysik, an associate professor and the director of the Center for Child Well-being in the School of Social Work. The project is a collaboration among the Office for Sex Trafficking Research Intervention, the ASU Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy and the Arizona Department of Child Safety. that won a $1.24 million grant to help identify young trafficking victims in Arizona and to train child-welfare professionals to improve outcomes.

Cathy Bauer, the diversion program manager at Catholic Charities Community Services, said she has seen attitudes in the city “change 180 degrees” over the past decade. She runs the Dignity program, which allows clients to have misdemeanor prostitution charges dismissed upon completion. But she said that housing for women with children has been the missing link.

“A lot of times people can take a step up to that program that will take them to the next level in life, but if they can’t take their children, they can’t go,” said Bauer, who will be able to refer clients to the Starfish program. “To get a place like Starfish with safe, adequate housing with services is phenomenal.”

Roe-Sepowitz said her work on Phoenix Starfish Place will involve ASU students, including the 10 undergraduate and graduate students currently working in the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.

“We’ll be evaluating the housing program and getting feedback on their quality of life, quality of safety, quality of community,” she said.

“It’s a really unique opportunity to collect data for students, and I hope it will support honors theses and graduate theses and maybe some dissertations.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News