Inside the 908th: Flight Surgeons – Caring for Those Who Fly

  • Published
  • By Maj. John T. Stamm
  • 908th Airlift Wing

The stresses that can result from working in extreme conditions require unique, specialized care. Residency-Trained Flight Surgeons, Air Force Specialty Code 48R, are primary care physicians for pilots and crewmembers traveling in air or space.

These physicians discover, prevent and manage the various physiological responses that may arise from encountering exceptional environments, enabling Airmen to stay in peak condition and continue their jobs in the air.

“There are distinct differences associated with flights, such as reduced air pressure, that can have a profound effect on the body,” said 908th Airlift Wing Chief of Aerospace Medicine, Lt. Col. Brandon Hemphill. “Especially on pilots, navigators and all the aircrew who spend a lot of time at a higher altitude.”

Flight surgeons, also known as flight doctors, examine personnel requiring special medical care standards to determine fitness for flying and special duties, or to recommend continuance, removal, or return to flying status and aviation service. They provide medical care for those with special standards of medical qualification and evaluate living and working environments to detect and control health hazards and prevent disease and injury within the Air Force community.

Flight surgeons implement policies and procedures and prepare directives governing flight, preventive and occupational medicine. Serving as liaisons with federal, state, and local agencies, and flying squadrons and other medical services, they assist in developing and implementing training programs for aeromedical personnel and aircrew performance enhancement to ensure a fit force prepared for worldwide deployments.

“I love the relationships we build,” said Hemphill. “It’s like we’re a family and we find ways to work together. It’s very rewarding and arguably the best job in the Air Force.”

Flight surgeons may be assigned to provide medical support during contingency operations, gathering and utilizing medical intelligence to provide optimal medical support to deployed forces. They may also provide advice on air rescue and aeromedical evacuation operations, and occasionally serve as additional care providers on air evac missions.

Currently, the Air Force Reserve is experiencing a shortage of flight surgeons.

According to Hemphill, the majority have historically come to the Reserve from Active Duty; however, they have been significantly short-staffed as well, so the “pipeline has dried up a bit.”  

Now the Reserve is intensifying their efforts to bring in civilian physicians.

Candidates must, at a minimum, possess a medical degree and have completed a 1-year internship at a fully accredited program of postgraduate specialty training.

“We obviously need physicians trained in primary or emergency care,” he said. “But the eagerness to serve and the eagerness to learn are the two major components that make a really good flight doc candidate. It’s all about attitude. We can teach anybody if they want to learn.”