flight surgeon
12 min read

A quick preamble. The Order of Daedalians is a “fraternal and professional order of American military pilots” dating back to WWI (Daedalus, in Greek mythology, is the first person to achieve heavier-than-air flight). First members were aviators from the war to end all wars, and are known as “named members.” Daedalians see to promote military aviation and offer scholarships to young men and women seeking a career in military aviation. At first limited to only rated pilots, over time it has expanded, including weapon systems officers and recently Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) were included as potential members. There is one recent addition to the Daedalian membership; I’ll discuss that in the following paragraphs.

Recently I attended my first meeting with the Epps Flight of Daedalians, and the first one held in person for about a year. I am a life Daedalian but because of a move from the Langley Flight catchment have not been active for several years—it was good to be back and part of an outstanding flight. One of the highlights was the induction of Colonel (ret) Susan Northrup as the first flight surgeon in the society. Susan is an Air Force vet and now works for the FAA at the national level. Her acceptance into our membership is a great move, and her remarks about her AF and FAA experience were interesting and informative.

In a sidebar conversation I asked what her favorite experience was. She quickly replied, “my first fighter squadron, at Moody AFB, and going with the unit to Desert Storm.” For some reason that triggered my memories of flight surgeons I’d been stationed with, and the variety of personalities and circumstances. I don’t remember my FS from pilot training or F-4 RTU, but our guy at Ubon is firm in my mind.

Robin Olds

Flight surgeon for Robin Olds? Not a boring job.

Russ was with the 433rd—a holdover from the days of Robin Olds, as I recall. I remember him for two things. One was advice, after the fact, on how to handle the inability to “hold” native food. I had a real case of the trots from what was a very up-town restaurant in Bangkok, Nick’s #1. Russ’s prescription for any future event was bananas and hard cheese. I also remember a conversation with him years later about Robin Olds being interviewed in the cockpit of Olds’s fighter from SEA SCAT XXVII at the Air Force Museum and an eight-day clock. There’s more to that story, but that would be Russ’s to tell.

Leaving Ubon, I went to fly F-4s at Bitburg, Germany. We were the 53rd Tigers and our flight doc was Major Mike. Mike had been an F-86 guy toward the end of the Korean War, went to med school and came back in as a flying flight surgeon. He was great with the aircrews and families. He was also our favorite DART tow pilot, making the trip to Zaragoza and taking those sorties to all four delights. Mike finished as a two star in the California Guard.

He also had another interesting aspect, which my wife learned at a party at his base quarters when she admired some wall hangings. Turns out they were by his dad, a contemporary of Georgia O’Keeffe. One could say it was a memorable “drinks and a show” for the Tigers that night—fighter pilot, flight surgeon, and son of one of America’s foremost photographers! My photo of Mike is on his last flight, with Tommy Gillam, another almost unforgettable character.

There were a couple of other flight docs at Bitburg worth mentioning, two young ones fresh out of med school and Air Force surgeon training. One came to the Tigers as Mike departed, the other became the Bulldogs’ guy. My impression was both really enjoyed being out of the medical grind and found freedom working with aircrews and family, a mainly very healthy set of patients. Their first temporary duty travels (TDYs) were jam packed with seeing what there was to see in minimum time. It was fun to see them on the runs to the Zaragoza tubes. I do remember Doc W’s first TDY. He had listened to a squadron worth of stories and tried to live them his first night in Spain. Recovery was long and ugly but we loved him like a brother.

There was one situation I vividly remember—it involved the two docs teaming up to give an annual physical to a squadron ops officer. He was a heck of a fighter pilot (some said he looked like a more rugged Paul Newman), but for the record it was the ladies that made that observation. To spare the details, the “end” of the exam had the ops officer in his hospital cover-up chasing the two docs down the hall and stopping only at the door as they escaped without suffering bodily harm. Use your imagination—or not.

Our docs took their mission seriously and spent a good bit of time in the squadron and flying on a variety of missions. One time I flew with the Tiger Doc W on a typically sloppy German night. We lost a generator, and had to make an approach and landing on not the best of nights. Doc W did a great job backing me with the checklist and telling me how great it was to have his first emergency. Just lucky it was with me—I guess. I don’t know where he went after Bitburg, but Doc B kept up with his Bulldog pack and to the best of my knowledge has attended one or more “is there a Bulldog in the house” reunions over the years.

Next on my list of flight docs is Colonel Rufus Dehart, head of Flight Medicine at the 35th Tactical Fighter wing. Rufus, sadly recently departed, was also a flying fight surgeon, having entered the AF as an aviation cadet and flying the F-89 at the start of his career. He also got his MD and came back in, along the way flying a combat tour at Korat and later being promoted to brigadier and serving on the TAC staff. I don’t remember ever flying with him, but a close friend did it often and remembers those trips to Cuddyback range as being “trips.” He was a long time Daedalian and member of the Stinson Flight.

On my first trip to Langley, I was on a commander’s directed investigation of TAC ejections. This was early in the life of the ACES II system and there were concerns about some of the early ejections from F-15 and F-16 jets. A key member of our team was a flight surgeon on exchange from the Royal Australian Air Force. I remember him as a squadron leader and expert on human factors. His name is not anywhere in my files, but he was a professional and a pleasure to have work with on a high-profile project. I think we did a fair job—my 0-6 boss got a Vice Commander assignment to an Eagle wing; I think that meant a thumbs up from the TAC Commander who sent us on the study.

flight surgeon

Keeping the pilots flying is no small job.

I can’t scare up a memory of any of the flight surgeons that were at Osan when I was on the ROK. We were all pretty young and healthy, so write that off to good health and (mostly) clean living.

Returning to Seymour Johnson after a year in Korea, I got a squadron and had the pleasure and enjoyable experience of having the “Count” as our flight surgeon. The Count was a graduate of an Italian medical school, a character of the highest order, and a welcome member of the Rocketeers. Socially he was an active and interesting part of the team.

I remember one night at a squadron party at our house he arrived in Meatloaf, Bat out of Hell-style on his bike—that’s motorcycle for clarification—with a bottle of his favorite wine in each pocket of his leather jacket. Both he and his slightly pregnant wife protected their noggins with helmets much in the style of a WWII fallschirmjäger. No, he did not drink the wine or any other adult beverage before departing the affair. The Count took good care of the Rocketeers. On more than one instance I used him as deputy chaplain to discuss concerns before they became issues and well before any documented medical considerations arose. A good doc and a good friend.

The next flight surgeon story has none of their names involved but it is special. Our squadron was tasked to do a sortie production exercise—the infamous SPE—to validate an Air Force unit’s ability to operate in a ChemBio environment. The SPE is a story in its own right, but for this discussion it is important to know that the medical community from San Antonio sent several reps to observe and record. Coincidentally, at this time one of my very best pilots and leaders had just been grounded because of vision problems in one eye. Heartbreaking for a guy that was one of the best, who had just pinned on major, and was on his way to Fort Leavenworth—for the Army School, not the disciplinary barracks. He was glum, so were the guys in his flight, and so was I.

Now for the good news: the flock of medical specialists and flight docs in town for the SPE took him as their special project to get back on flight status. With the medical wind at his back, the task was not to see what he’d be grounded for and how long, but to get him back on unrestricted flight status ASAP. Details spared, he had near revolutionary eye surgery and became a poster child for what could happen. End of story—he and I went through F-15 upgrade training together and he continued a great career. Always good to have the home team on your side.

After Seymour I went to the Pentagon and only visits to the flight surgeon were to Andrews for routine visits for my daughter and a couple of annual physicals. However, upon promotion to colonel I was entitled to take advantage of the Flight Medicine facility in the “building”—less hassle and much more convenient. My only exercise of that perk was an annual physical, with a young female flight surgeon—awkward at first, but she’d just arrived after duty in the fighter wing at Hahn. She assured me I was not her first fighter pilot, or colonel. Still awkward, but a foreshadowing sign of the times

Speaking of the sign of the times, one of our flight surgeons in the 49th wing at Holloman was Captain Barb—she was assigned to the 9th Tactical Fighter Squadron (Iron Knights) and was due to go with them on their Checkered Flag to Wittmundhafen, Germany, a transatlantic crossing of around nine hours… in poopy suits. The Knights squadron commander, Bubba, let me know she wanted to fly over in one of the B models as part of her OJT. I was the DO and could see her point, but our Air Division boss was concerned about the in-flight issues you might imagine.

F-117 cockpit

A cozy place for a flight surgeon to sit for a trans-Atlantic flight.

I spoke to Barb. Guess what—she had thought this through and was ready for the consequences. I conveyed this to the AD boss, and given she’d flown on some air-to-air missions, done fine, appreciated what she might experience, and after all she was a female flight doc, put her on the schedule, briefed it up through the 12 AF commander as part of the mission profile, and away we went. Been there—done that—and Barb had earned early bragging rights.

One of our other flight surgeons was Major Phil. He came to us from flight surgeon duty with the Eagles at Kadena, and had the call sign “Meat.” Don’t know why—don’t care to know. Meat went with us to Santiago, Chile, to take three Eagles for the international air show. The TAC Commander wanted some American medical presence for our week-plus deployment and to make sure the demo pilots got a good look over and every-day demos didn’t cause some insidious problems. Meat was everywhere checking food, safety concerns, and the general wellbeing of the 30-person USAF component at the air show, which included our buddy KC-10 and a B-52 and its crew and maintenance team. We made stopovers in Panama when Howard was still an AF base. A good doc—at home with pilots and their families as well as on TDY to South America and Nellis.

There was another flight surgeon in the Holloman area. That’s Col. Dr. John Stapp, for years known as “the fastest man alive.” Look him up in Wikipedia: “Colonel John Paul Stapp, MD, PhD, was an American career US Air Force officer, flight surgeon, physician, biophysicist, and pioneer in studying the effects of acceleration and deceleration forces on humans. He was a colleague and contemporary of Chuck Yeager.” He rode the sleds on the Holloman test track, hitting 632 miles per hour and experiencing deceleration of around 40Gs. Dr Stapp attended Daedalian meetings with Zia flight in the late 80s and 90s. He lived in the nearby mountains, driving himself to and from the meetings—I always worried we’d lose a national treasure on a mountain road one evening. We never did. You don’t get to be the world’s fastest man without being able to handle a car! He passed in 1999. RIP Dr. Stapp.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, the inclusion of flight surgeons as eligible for Daedalian membership is enlightened. Meeting with Col. Northrup fired some synapses and brought over 25 years of memories forward. I was surprised at myself being able to recall in some detail flight docs I’d known, and I had a lot of smiles and fond memories of my days with the flight docs. I know Dehart was a Daedalian, but he got in as a rated pilot. I am proud we have our first flight surgeon. Glad the door is open for some very worthy members!

Steve Mosier
3 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Steve, great to hear stories about the ‘docs’ who kept us flying. When I first experienced kidney stones, I was grounded and our flight surgeon took it upon himself to get me back in the air ASAP, and he did just that. My favorite flight surgeon was Karen O’Hare who I first met in Korea with the 8th Fighter Wing (The ‘Wolfpack). Karen was in the first class of women to graduate from the AF Academy. In Korea, she picked up the callsign of ‘Scarlett’ (think of ‘Gone with the Wind’ and Scarlett O’Hara) but that was later changed when she was my squadron flight surgeon at MacDill and married one of my IPs, Bill Fox. That’s when her callsign was changed to Fox II!

    Reply

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