History of (Naval) Aviation Medicine (Part 2)

The Naval Order of the United States, at its annual Congress will this year celebrate 100 years of U S Naval Aviation. Prompted by this event, I think it is well for us to observe something of the history of U S naval aviation medicine. Part one of these jottings (see below) discussed the experimentation and the best medical thinking that accompanied the earliest flights–ascents to ever higher altitudes–in balloons.


The advent of flying machines–and the daring young men who flew them–would ultimately prompt a whole new level of medical interest in the effects of flight. But in the early days, both civilian and military aeronauts put their emphasis on developing reliable and safe machines. Thanks to the foresight of then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt–who in 1898 recommended the appointment of naval officers as aviation observers–Naval authorities at least followed the progress of pioneering aviators and their machines. Ten years on, in September 1908, two navy officers observed flight trials of the Army’s first Wright airplane in an official status. A year later, Lieutenant George C Sweet became the first U S Navy officer to become officially airborne, in an Army machine piloted by Lieutenant Frank P Lahm.

1910 saw the beginnings of an aviation office under the Secretary of the Navy. The Navy designated Captain W I Chambers, USN, to that position, and appointed an officer each from the Bureaus of Construction and Repair, and Steam Engineering, detailed to investigate the subject of aviation, develop technical knowledge of airplanes, and report progress in the field to Captain Chambers. Late that year, Lieutenant T G Ellyson became the first Navy officer to undergo flight training at the Glenn Curtis Aviation Camp at North Island near San Diego California. 1911 saw the conception of a naval office of aviation, soon to be housed in the Bureau of Navigation, with Captain Chambers as its chief. The first funds–$25,000–were designated for “experimental work in the development of aviation for naval purposes”, and flights of A-1, the first airplane built specifically for the navy, took place in upstate New York. U S Naval aviation was now established.

Early heavier than air machines were capable only of straight level flight at relatively low altitudes, and as such, placed relatively few demands upon their pilots other than of daring and physical strength. However, it became apparent enough that flying called for special qualifications that the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery promulgated–in Circular Letter 125221, October 8, 1912–new physical standards for prospective naval aviators. These standards called for very careful evaluation of prospects’ vision (both acuity and color), hearing, balance and joint flexibility. In addition, the new standards stated “any candidate whose condition shows that he is inclined to any except [sic] that may disturb his mental balance or to alcoholism, should be rejected.” Other than specifying special uniform items for the protection of pilots in the new environment of air travel–helmet with goggles, leather coat with fur or wool lining, leather trousers, boots and life preserver–Navy authorities did little more along medical lines until World War I. In fact, from the flight of the Wright’s first airplane until the beginning of the War–11 years–on the subject of medical aspects of air flight, in the world, only 31 papers and one small book saw publication.

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