Current: Ed.D. Sports Management
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas E. Sather, who earned his master’s in Sports Medicine and Sports Fitness and Health in 1996 and now is completing his doctorate at the Academy, plans to conduct further research at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute in Pensacola, Fla., on the effects of energy drinks on pilot flight performance.
Sather got interested in the subject to help protect pilots. He then developed a comprehensive evidence-based policy on the use of nutritional supplements and energy drinks for pilots. He currently serves as the Deputy Director at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
The only study on the issue specifically related to pilots that he could find coincidentally involved Dr. Conrad Woolsey, the Academy’s Chair of Sports Studies. The research on 30 student pilots in the original study he found suggested that the overall performance of technical flight skills appeared to be reduced by energy drinks.
Sather now is helping to spearhead further research to increase the validity of the results to military aviators. The research is seen as groundbreaking to both athletes and military personnel and has lead to further safety guidelines for pilots and aircrews. While it’s important to what he does in the Navy, Sather also plans to do the study for his doctoral dissertation at the Academy.
The subject is being highlighted at the Navy Medicine Operational Training Center’s Pre-Memorial Day Safety Stand Down on Tuesday, May 21 along with other areas of concern to the Navy and Marine Corps.
Despite recovering from pneumonia, Sather took time with the Alumni Network to discuss his research on energy drinks, a more than $6 billion industry that is receiving increasing scrutiny from health professionals.
Alumni Network: What do you think of the initial study involving Dr. Conrad Woolsey, Chair of Sport Studies, that found Energy Beverages (EB) may hurt pilots’ flight performance? And what would you like to see done with future studies that you plan to be involved in, as part of your doctoral dissertation?
Lt. Cmdr. Thomas E. Sather: Military missions and objectives often require pilots and aircrew to perform complex tasks in a very dynamic environment. This environment is many times compounded by split second reaction time requirements, critical time constraints, and life and death consequences. The high operational tempo often times has the added effect of increasing the operating stress levels in persons who are already working on a high workload environment. Mental fatigue, physical exhaustion, and emotional duress all contribute to cumulative stress loading to pilots and aircrew. While a certain level of stress can be enhancing, too much stress can affect a crew-members ability to perform optimally, thus negatively impacting mission objectives. In the military aviation environment, controlling or mediating the performance decreasing effects of stress need to be attended to. By enhancing physical recovery via the employment of sports supplements, one facet of environmental stresses can be managed, thus enhancing operational safety of flight. Likewise, by prohibiting known substances that can negatively impact performance, safety of flight and mission effectiveness is also optimized. One such prohibition is the used of Energy Beverages (EB).
Alumni Network: What kind of reaction do you get when you tell pilots that that Energy Drinks may reduce their overall flight performance?
Lt. Cmdr. Thomas E. Sather: Often times when aircrew are told that EBs are detrimental to performance, they don’t believe it. This is not surprising as the EB companies spend billions of dollars annually on advertisement. The philosophy of “if you tell someone something long enough, they start to believe it” is evident here. Additionally, there is a belief—all be it false—that if it is being sold next to the fruit juices and sodas, it has to be safe. The FDA the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would not allow unsafe products to be sold. When educated about how the FDA has different safety criteria for nutritional supplements than it does for food, drink or drugs, aircreware often surprised at how little regulations apply.
Alumni Network: How supportive has the Navy and your superiors been on this?
Lt. Cmdr. Thomas E. Sather: Navy medicine and the Navy in general has been very supportive of the research efforts. They have been gracious and provided every opportunity to do this while on active duty. The Naval Safety Center has even used my research efforts and produced two articles for Navy and Marine Corps wide distribution. My independent study project in the Academy’s doctoral Sports Management program has even lead to an upcoming Naval Aviation policy change pertaining to the use of nutritional and sports supplements by pilots and aircrew.
Alumni Network: How has your master’s and doctoral studies at the Academy helped you in your career? How is the flexibility of the program helpful to you?
Lt. Cmdr. Thomas E. Sather: I feel very fortunate that the U.S. Navy has allowed me to work on my doctorate while serving on Active Duty. Likewise, I am extremely thankful that the United States Sports Academy’s doctoral program is flexible and allows me to progress through the program at my own pace. The synergy works for me and I believe the proof is in the pudding as to the effectiveness of the relationship. It is my hope to continue to study the performance effects of Energy Beverages on pilot and aircrew performance. There are so many claims and myths out in the media on these products, more study has to be done to validate the claims. The impact of this research line may have far reaching implications across not only military aviation, but also civilian industries such as law enforcement, air travel and commercial OTR driving.