This Air Guard fighter pilot is the first in the world to return to duty after disc replacement surgery
Fighter pilots are awesome because they make gravity look optional, and they do it at supersonic speeds. But flying tight maneuvers at high-Gs takes a toll on the human spine, and fighter pilots often suffer lifelong injuries that forces many of them into an early retirement.
That’s why Col. Todd Hofford, an Oregon Air National Guard F-15 pilot, just broke a major barrier by becoming the first pilot in the world to return to the cockpit of a high-G fighter after undergoing disc replacement surgery, which until now, the Air Force has been hesitant to allow.
“I was determined to turn this around,” said Hofford in a recent article by Tech Sgt. Steph Sawyer for the 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs. “I knew it was going to take time. I needed to be patient.”
Col. Todd Hofford, 142nd Fighter Wing Vice Commander and newly reinstated F-15 Eagle fighter pilot, prepares for his first official flight since undergoing cervical disc replacement surgery, December 4, 2019 (Air National Guard photo / Tech. Sgt. Steph Sawyer)
To understand Hofford’s achievement, you need to know how bad fighter jets can be for the spine.
According to Sawyer’s reporting, the human head weighs about 12 pounds, and the Joint Helmet Mounting Cubing System adds another six. That’s fine under normal gravity, but when a fighter pilot is pulling 9Gs in a maneuver, it means gravity acts nine times stronger on the pilot than normal.
The strong gravity makes an 18 pound head-and-helmet combo weigh 162 pounds, every one of which the bones and muscles of the neck must still support. Career pilots spend a lot of time under that strain, which leads to injuries. Lots of injuries.
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