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School of Medicine discoveries

October 28, 2016

Flying Physicians

There IS a Doctor on Board.

For many, the feeling of soaring among the clouds in an aircraft is an unrivaled experience. And if the views weren’t enough, some even find a way to use aviation to serve their fellow man.

Douglas Johnson, M’79

Douglas Johnson, M’79, with the experimental Lancair IV-P that he built himself.

Flying can be a great opportunity for physicians to blend two passions, says Douglas Johnson, M’79. “Physicians go into medicine because they want to help people,” he says. “We want to do a good job at what we do, and want to provide a service that not just anybody can provide. Pilots are the same way.” Johnson is one of a number of medical school alumni who use their aviation skills and knowledge to extend the care they provide.

“Give both groups—pilots and physicians—a psychological profile,” Johnson says, “and you’ll see a lot of similarities, including a drive for success, attention to detail and high ethical standards.” Professionally, there are parallels, too. Cockpit resource management techniques have influenced the way physicians practice medicine today, successfully incorporating checklists, teamwork training, briefings and debriefings, incident reporting, simulator training and standardization.

Johnson, a radiation oncologist in Jacksonville, Fla., is immediate past president of the Flying Physicians Association, a nationwide organization whose members use their love of flying to continue learning and help others.

“We help directly,” says Johnson, who is also an assistant professor of oncology with Mayo Clinic. “We can take supplies and help rebuild after hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters.

“After the earthquake in Haiti [in 2010], we were contacted by a hospital there that was short on medical supplies. We got a list of the supplies they needed—and we doubled it. We filled 24 aircraft and flew down to the Dominican Republic, where we loaded them on one big UN helicopter. It flew across the mountain range and landed on the grounds of the hospital, so we knew our supplies got there and weren’t rotting somewhere or being pilfered.”

The Flying Physicians Association is just one of many organizations that encourage physicians to mix medical and aviation skills. Some others include Angel Flight, Fly for Good, Air Charity, Flying Samaritans and even Pilots N Paws, which transports animals.

Some of these groups transport patients for medical treatments, but Johnson cannot. Though he’s been flying it for nearly two decades, his Lancair IV-P is classified as experimental, and most humanitarian organizations do not want an experimental aircraft transporting patients.

It’s a pressurized-cabin aircraft he built himself. It took four and a half years, but he’s thrilled with the result. Building and owning a plane was a dream for Johnson, who was a skydiver during his undergraduate studies because he couldn’t afford flight school. “I was the guy who’d sit next to the pilot and watch. But of course, I never got to see a landing.” After completing his internship, he rewarded himself with flying lessons.

Douglas Johnson, M’79

Many organizations encourage physicians to mix medical and aviation skills. “We can take supplies and help rebuild after hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters.”

In addition to humanitarian flights, the Flying Physicians Association also holds CME events and raises funds for the Air Safety Foundation of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). Air safety is an important focus of the group, which acknowledges that sometimes physicians have a reputation as risk takers in the air.

Many at VCU remember the impact of the tragic death of Surgery Chair David Hume, M.D., in 1973. When his self-piloted plane crashed in California, its effects were felt for years on the MCV Campus and in the transplant community.

Keeping the nation’s skies safe is top priority every day for Keith Martin, M’80. Though he isn’t a pilot himself, his work as co-founder and chairman of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS) affects countless pilots, as he consults with and helps them obtain and maintain Federal Aviation Administration medical certification.

Like Johnson, Martin served in the military as a flight surgeon, tasked with ensuring the well-being of those who fly, control or jump from planes. Flight surgeons aren’t required to be licensed pilots, but do log numerous hours of flight time.

Martin contends with many of the same conditions that concern all physicians today, but in the air, the stakes can be higher. Pilots diagnosed with illnesses such as diabetes, coronary artery disease or depression, or those taking certain medications, until recently could be barred from commercial piloting—and thus lose their livelihood.

For example, he says, “Initially if you were diagnosed as HIV-positive, that was not a problem, but if you went on the treatments, that automatically disqualified you from flying. So what was a pilot to do? Not go on the medications?

“We were concerned that pilots would not seek the health care they needed,” he says. Fortunately, over more recent years, AMAS has worked with the FAA to develop protocols to allow pilots to return to flying in a safe, supervised way.

Several School of Medicine alumni work not only to ensure safety in the air, but also well above the earth’s atmosphere.

Richard Williams, M’79

Richard Williams, M’79, with his rare Nanchang CJ6 Chinese military training aircraft used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

NASA’s Chief Health and Medical Officer Richard Williams, M’79, is responsible for the oversight of all health and medical activities at the nation’s space agency. He works on policy and oversight issues, but also focuses on astronaut health. “It’s a chance to contribute to the destiny of our species,” he says.

“We’re taking a long-range view. The work being done in human space flight, leading to human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, not only represents the ultimate frontier, but it will ultimately help assure our survival.”

On earth, Williams volunteers as a senior aviation medical examiner for the FAA, performing flight physicals for pilots near his home in Fredericksburg, Va. He’s also a private pilot who’s had about 18 different airplanes and logged over 4,000 hours flying single and multi-engine aircraft.

“I live on an airfield and currently own two airplanes,” he says. One is an experimental Lancair 360, the other a rare Nanchang CJ6 Chinese military training aircraft used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

 

WHO ELSE IS UP IN THE AIR? 

Here’s a sampling of some medical school alumni who have used flying as a means to do good.

lillypaulPAUL LILLY, M’64, is a former member of the Air Force who flew more than 50 missions as a flight surgeon in B-52s in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Later he trained and qualified as a WSO (weapon systems officer) in the F-15E. He’s committed to caring for pilots and veterans, both as a medical examiner for aviators and a flight instructor. He and several others perform the missing man formation, an aerial maneuver used at funerals or memorials for veterans. Lilly also provides a special experience for veterans who have stopped to visit the D-Day Memorial near his home in Bedford, Va. “We’ll get together at a nearby airport,” he explained. “While the veterans are having lunch, we’ll fly over the memorial and do the missing man formation to salute them. It’s a privilege for us to honor the veterans.” Lilly often is spotted practicing aerobatic maneuvers in his single-engine two-seater RV-8 plane.

JOHN A. GOODNO, JR., M’55JOHN A. GOODNO, JR., M’55, served in the Air Force and has enjoyed volunteering with several organizations after retiring from his OB-GYN practice in California. “I had time to devote to some of these medical missions. I was invited by several groups to join them and go to Mexico.” With the Flying Samaritans and the Flying Doctors of Mercy (also known as LIGA), Goodno and other physicians fly their personal airplanes (his is a Cessna 210) to Mexico once a month to care for the underserved at two active clinics. “It’s been very rewarding. It’s been great experience to get involved with volunteer medicine.”

HARRY A. “BERT” WELLONS, M’61HARRY A. “BERT” WELLONS, M’61, has incorporated flying into his retirement activities. “I was looking for ways to use aviation – I still wanted to fly,” says the cardiothoracic surgeon who now lives in Charlottesville, Va., and currently flies a Piper Mirage. “I have, in the past, done Angel Flights transporting patients from remote locations for appointments at medical centers and a few missions with Veterans Airlift Command which provides transportation for wounded veterans.” He also volunteered to fly soldiers to and from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

OWEN BRODIE, M’62OWEN BRODIE, M’62, Brodie is a retired Richmond-area psychiatrist who served as president of the Flying Physicians Association in the late 1980s. Though he recently had to stop flying because of vision issues, he flew volunteer missions with Angel Flight in his Cessna 177RG. It also was a great way to get to meetings, he says.

RALPH RIFFENBURGH, M’47RALPH RIFFENBURGH, M’47, was an ophthalmologist, recreational pilot and FAA medical examiner for years. In addition, he volunteered with the San Bernardino Sherriff’s Department, scouring canyons near his California home for lost hikers and campers. Now 93, Riffenburgh fondly remembers getting a night job as an orderly on the psych ward to afford flight lessons while in medical school. It was the start of nearly 70 years of flying, which culminated with his receiving the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the FAA for more than 50 years of safe flying.

LEON "SKIP” BEELER III, M’79LEON “SKIP” BEELER III, M’79, isn’t piloting, but like his classmate Richard Williams, is making sure NASA astronauts and employees stay healthy. He’s medical services manager at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the site of space shuttle launches until 2011. The massive complex is still active, with the Commercial Crew Program working toward launching Americans from Kennedy in 2017. Regular expendable launches of satellites and Space Station resupply missions are among the many programs and projects ongoing at America’s Spaceport. Working there has unique challenges, he says, like ensuring safety around rocket fuels and caring for the thousands of visitors who tour the site each year. “We ensure that astronauts and supporting staff are healthy enough to keep the program running.”
By Lisa Crutchfield