NAMI: An Aviator to Flight Surgeon Perspective (Part 2 of a 2 part series)

Lt. Cmdr. Charles Johnson

Editor’s note: In part one of this two-part blog, Lt. Cmdr. Johnson explains how he, like many aviation candidates, views the flight surgeons who evaluate the student aviators prior to their training. Johnson tells his unique experience and how it changed his view on Naval Aerospace Medical Institute processes. Part one of the blog series posted on Navy Medicine’s Live blog on Thursday, June 21st.

By Lt. Cmdr. Charles Johnson, staff flight surgeon, Naval Aerospace Medical Institute (NAMI)

After 10 years as a naval aviator, I was afforded the opportunity to return to school to complete a medical degree.  Currently, I am proudly serving as a NAMI Flight Surgeon.  I am a naval aviator and a naval physician who now has a unique perspective of the NAMI process since I have personally experienced NAMI as both a pilot applicant and a medical provider.   I have learned to appreciate that NAMI performs an extremely vital role in Naval Aviation, and have realized that the aviator’s perception of the NAMI process is in stark contrast to reality.

     NAMI does a lot more than qualify aviation personnel to fly.  Its purpose is to employ experts from multiple aviation medicine backgrounds to perform comprehensive medical clearances for all aviation candidates.  NAMI also exists to train aeromedical personnel for success in operational assignments. 

NAMI is the entity charged with training all:

  •          Navy Flight Surgeons
  •          Aerospace Residency-trained physicians
  •          Aerospace Physiologists
  •          Aviation Experimental Psychologists
  •          Aviation Optometrists
  •          Aerospace Medicine Technicians   

The United States Navy has the most intensive, rigorous six-month educational flight surgeon training course in the world.  It’s internationally recognized curriculum provides training opportunities for flight surgeons from countries such as Brazil, Canada, Finland, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Norway.  

     From a flight surgeon perspective, an aviation medical clearance is an established standard of criteria that must be met to ensure that aviators and their crew members are medically safe for flight training and aviation careers.  Aerospace experts in multiple disciplines such as Flight Surgery, Neurology, Mental Health, Ear/Nose/Throat (ENT), and Ophthalmology/Optometry, along with their support personnel, are employed to achieve the goal of qualifying rather than disqualifying flight candidates. Unfortunately, there are conditions that are deemed too high-risk to allow individuals with these conditions to work in certain aviation professions. Fortunately, some conditions meet the criteria for waiver approval, and candidates are allowed to continue in the flight training program. 

     Ophthalmology provides a great example of how candidates can benefit from waivers.  While the eye exam is one of the most dreaded portions of the NAMI physical qualification process, it is also one of the most revolutionary areas of aerospace medicine.  In 2000, the Navy’s Ophthalmology experts played an instrumental role in getting authorization to grant a PRK waiver.  Over the past several years, this waiver paved the way for the development and authorization of a LASIK waiver.  Because PRK and LASIK can improve a person’s vision to within the standards required for an aviator, these waivers changed the lives of countless pilots that previously would have been disqualified from pursuing a military aviation career.  Advancements in aerospace medicine, like establishing the PRK and LASIK waivers, are being made on a continual basis by NAMI providers to optimize candidate’s opportunities to achieve their aviation goals while maintaining a foundational structure of safety.

     Becoming a Naval Aviator is a long and challenging, but rewarding process.  Transitioning from a Naval aviator to a flight surgeon is a challenge few have achieved.  This transition opened my eyes to the risks associated with all aviation-related professions, and provided an in-depth understanding of the importance of ensuring candidates are medically qualified to safely pursue an aviation career.  This is done for both themselves and their flight crews.  I now take pride in knowing that it is my responsibility to medically protect aviation personnel.  Their lives depend on it!

Part one of the blog series will be post on Navy Medicine’s Live blog on Thursday, June 21st. Click here to link back to part one.