KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
Amber Biles’ mother is a doctor. Her father served as a U.S. Navy pilot for 23 years. So perhaps it was only natural she became an aerospace physiologist.
“The pride in serving our country has definitely been passed down to me and I hope I can make my family even a quarter as proud as I am of them and their accomplishments,” said Biles, who said her three brothers have also served in the military, including one as a Navy pilot.
“Of course when I told them I was applying [for the Navy] they weren’t very surprised as the influence of one brother on the specialty I chose was considerable,” she said. “He’s a pilot in the Navy and when I was 12 years old I heard him talking about the aerospace physiology program and thought that was the coolest job I had ever heard about, and decided right then and there that that is what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
Biles now serves as a lieutenant commander in the Navy and is currently deployed to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) as the wing’s aeromedical safety officer. With that billet, she carries the responsibility of ensuring that pilots know how to use flight equipment safely.
"It's all about human performance, anything that affects the pilot in the aircraft," said Biles, whose family lives in New Bern, N.C. "We look at ways that both enhance performance and things that are detrimental to performance, and how we can negate those detriments."
Biles ensures the proper use of flight gear for hundreds of pilots spread throughout 2nd MAW (Fwd.). Biles said her knowledge must be diverse, as the wing’s arsenal ranges from UH-1Y Huey helicopters to AV-8B Harrier attack jets.
“That’s where our flying with the aircrew becomes extremely important,” she said. “Not only do we get to experience the physiological portion of the flight, but we also experience the integration of the gear. That helps tremendously in understanding the individual needs of the different aircraft for both similar and different gear.”
She even works with unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons as the technical laser safety officer.
"One day I'm flying, one day I'm dealing with lasers, the next night vision goggles," said Biles. “We become a jack of all trades, there’s no way to be able to know everything, so you have to know where to go to get the information and know how to interpret that information. That along with the experience of flying in the different aircraft with the gear is what prepares me to assist the aircrew as best I can.”
As Biles introduces new gear in to the squadrons, she also has a say in what would most benefit pilots in their mission, such as lighter cushioning in a flight jacket.
"If the gear doesn't fit properly and starts hurting, now you're thinking of that and not the mission," she said. "Anything that can negatively affect performance, it can take your mind off the mission.
“In fact two days ago I was able to fly with our CH-53D [Sea Stallion] squadron and it was the first time I had worn that particular vest,” she added. “I was able to come out with a great lessons learned that I can share with the engineers back at [Naval Air Systems Command] from my personal experiences.”
“She is very professional, very helpful,” said Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Gendron, the Marine Attack Squadron 513 aviation life support systems chief, who has been in contact with Biles for the past few months. “She was here [at Kandahar Airfield] for three days, and she helped us out a lot.”
Gendron said he believes the most important piece of equipment in Biles’ stock may be the PRQ-7 combat survivor and evader locator survival radio on which a downed pilot's life may depend.
“She is the subject matter expert on the CSEL,” Gendron said. “If the pilots were to eject or punch out behind enemy lines, the CSEL is there to provide the pilot communication with home base.”
Biles said there are only about 100 aerospace physiologists in the Navy, and about a third of those are certified as aeromedical safety officers. Biles added that the specialty is currently in the process branching outside of strictly working with flight crews to providing operational physiology support to other members of the Navy and Marine Corps team.
“I believe this is a great change as I feel our specialty can definitely enhance,” she said. “As we are beginning to branch outside of strict aerospace physiology and are becoming more operationally well-rounded.”
So after a bachelor’s and master’s from Georgia Southern University, and 13 years of service to the Navy, Biles is doing what she said she loves – helping keep Marines and sailors safe.
“A lot of education and hard work later, I’m living my childhood dream,” Biles said. “Not many people can say that, so I feel extremely blessed.”
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