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Aerospace medicine: flight surgeons

Members of the 34th Bomb Squadron receive a step brief prior to launching from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., May 19, 2020, for a long-range, long-duration Bomber Task Force mission in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility. Flight surgeons help to physically and mentally prepare aviators prior to missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett)

Members of the 34th Bomb Squadron receive a step brief prior to launching from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., May 19, 2020, for a long-range, long-duration Bomber Task Force mission in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility. Flight surgeons help to physically and mentally prepare aviators prior to missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett)

An Airman assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron tests equipment for aviators prior to a more than 25-hour non-stop deployment from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., to the U.S. European Command area of responsibility May 4, 2020. In addition to caring for aviators, many flight surgeons serve as occupational medical specialists by monitoring the safety and health of the base population, particularly those who work in hazardous work environments.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett)

An Airman assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron tests equipment for aviators prior to a more than 25-hour non-stop deployment from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., to the U.S. European Command area of responsibility May 4, 2020. In addition to caring for aviators, many flight surgeons serve as occupational medical specialists by monitoring the safety and health of the base population, particularly those who work in hazardous work environments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett)

A B-1B Lancer soars through the night sky above Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during Red Flag 20-1, Jan. 30, 2020. Flight surgeons help to make the mission possible by ensuring that aviators are fit to fly prior to takeoff. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett)

A B-1B Lancer soars through the night sky above Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during Red Flag 20-1, Jan. 30, 2020. Flight surgeons help to make the mission possible by ensuring that aviators are fit to fly prior to takeoff. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Flight surgeons, despite their official duty title do not perform surgeries while in flight. The misnomer stems from the early days of aviation medicine, when the U.S. Army Aviation Section ordered three military physicians to attend aviation school to ensure aircrew were physically prepared to fly. Today, flight surgeons are more commonly known as ‘flight doctors’ or ‘flight physicians.’

In current times, flight surgeons still play a unique and integral role in the Air Force mission.

“Flight surgeons are rated officers and are thus required to log flight hours every month,” said Maj. Andrew Pellegrin, a flight surgeon and chief of aerospace medicine at the 28th Medical Group. “This helps us to maintain the knowledge and credibility required to make decisions as to whether our aviators are fit to fly.”

Pellegrin, who was awarded his flight surgeon wings in 2018, explained that flight surgeons must complete an aerospace medicine primary course in addition to having completed medical school and post-graduate medical training. After obtaining their flight surgeon wings, there are supplementary trainings that must be completed within their first year. Examples include – advanced trauma support, centrifuge training and an aircraft mishap investigation course.

Pellegrin is well aware of the particular physical difficulties a crew member may face during aviation. Although not typical of all flight surgeons, Pellegrin was a pilot prior to attending medical school.

There are several physiologic stressors that can impact aviators during a mission, explained Pellegrin. Altitude, acceleration, increased radiation exposure and time pressure are examples of conditions that may come into play – depending on the aircraft and mission.

Recently, aircrew assigned to the 28th Bomb Wing participated in several long-range Bomber Task Force missions and flight surgeons were there to help aircrew members prepare.

“[Flight surgeons] work with aviators to educate them about proper sleep hygiene, circadian rhythms, nutrition and exercise,” said Pellegrin. “Preparing for long-range missions starts well before the night prior to takeoff. We use computer models that predict how alert the crewmembers will be during each phase of the long duration sorties based on takeoff time, time zones, sortie duration, and other variables.”

In addition to ensuring that aviators are fit to fly, many flight surgeons – dependent on their base – serve as occupational medical specialists. They help monitor the safety and health of the base population, particularly those who work in hazardous work environments.

“Every day we work with outstanding aerospace medical technicians, as well as colleagues in optometry, public health, bioenvironmental engineering, and others across the medical group and the base,” said Pellegrin. “All of our colleagues have a tremendous impact on the mission, but flight surgeons get the opportunity to see it with our own eyes as part of our daily work.”

Flight surgeons or ‘flight docs’ are an essential part of the mission. They ensure that every Air Force member is healthy and mission ready in order to provide airpower – anytime, anywhere.

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