What Is a Flight Surgeon?

Doctors have a long history of serving in the military, treating everything from infectious diseases to battle wounds. One specific type of doctor treats military members and astronauts in the air. They are called flight surgeons.

A flight surgeon is a doctor who works with members of the military and astronauts in space. Each aircraft or space shuttle mission has a dedicated flight surgeon who treats pilots and crew members. These doctors  also make sure service members are mentally and physically healthy enough to carry out their missions before the missions depart.

The title “flight surgeon” is a bit confusing, because most of these doctors are not pilots, nor do they perform surgery. However, they do work to help crew members navigate extreme stress and medical problems they face while working in the air or in space.

What Does a Flight Surgeon Do?

A flight surgeon’s training includes subjects ranging from the physiology of flight (how your body reacts while in the air) to occupational medicine (study and treatment of work-related conditions, illnesses, or diseases), environmental hazards, and the investigation of aircraft and space shuttle accidents.

Caring for pilots and crew members is often a balancing act for flight surgeons. They must consider their patients’ physical and mental health and remember they are treating diseases in the air, which is very different from patient care on the ground.

A flight surgeon’s duties include: 

  • Diagnosing and treating illness or disorders specific to aerospace environments
  • Working with crew members to support and maintain their physical and mental health while in the air
  • Treating patients with both acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) illnesses

The Role of NASA Flight Surgeons

The term “aerospace medicine” includes both military aircraft and space shuttles. Preparing for a flight mission is a large investment for the people and organizations involved, and those taking to the skies must stay as healthy as possible. Therefore, a flight surgeon is essential to the mission’s success.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) assigns flight surgeons to every crew preparing for a space mission. These doctors are responsible for the astronauts’ health care and medical evaluations and training before, during, and after spaceflight. 

During the mission, flight surgeons work in the NASA Mission Control Center and communicate with the astronauts each week. They treat both astronauts in the air and their loved ones on the ground, often making house calls. Flight surgeons also travel to launch and landing sites to offer medical support.

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Education and Training

Doctors pursuing a career as a flight surgeon must complete many years of training. First they must attend undergraduate school and medical school. Then they can complete a residency program in aerospace medicine. There are five accredited (approved) programs in the United States:

Military Programs

  • Air Force: Wright-Patterson AFB (OH)
  • Army/Navy: Naval Aerospace Medical Institute (Pensacola, FL)

Civilian Programs

  • Wright State University (Dayton, OH)
  • The University of Texas-Medical Branch (Galveston, TX)
  • Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN)

To enroll in an aerospace medicine residency, an individual must be an experienced medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). They should also have at least one internship working directly with patients. Training programs differ based on the military branch a doctor chooses.

Flight surgeon training programs cover a broad range of subjects, including the physical and mental effects of flight, occupational medicine, and environmental hazards. For these doctors, training never ends. They must stay current on the latest advancements in technology, telemedicine, and new treatments.

What Conditions Does a Flight Surgeon Treat?

A flight surgeon’s education focuses mostly on preventive and clinical medicine. They spend time communicating with their crew members and try to resolve any problems before a flight or mission departs.

They are responsible for treating conditions related to:

Flight surgeons also diagnose common ear, nose, and throat (ENT) conditions, usually related to barometric pressure changes (changes in pressure in the atmosphere), and treat ophthalmologic, or eye, disorders.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 25, 2021

Sources

SOURCES: 

Aerospace Medical Association: “Residency Programs and Related Courses.”

American Medical Association: “Doctors who serve: Becoming a Navy flight surgeon.”

Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine Journal: “The history of the United States Navy flight surgeon/naval aviator program.”

The Houston Chronicle: “Job Description of a USAF Flight Surgeon.”

Mayo Clinic: “Aerospace Medicine Fellowship.”

NASA: “Flight Surgeons.”

Navy Medicine Operational Training Center: “Why Become a U.S. Naval Flight Surgeon?”

U.S. Air Force: “AEROSPACE MEDICINE SPECIALIST/FLIGHT SURGEON.”

U.S. Army: “FLIGHT SURGEON (61N).”

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