History of Naval Aviation Medicine (Part 3)

The Naval Order of the United States, at its annual Congress in October will celebrate 100 years of U S Naval Aviation. Prompted by this event, I think it is well to consider 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. In Part Two, we saw the beginnings of an actually flying service in the Navy, and noted the early response of BuMed (the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery) to the medical needs of that fledgling Naval arm–establishing physical and mental standards (in a most general way) for prospective aviators. But until the advent of World War I, the medical response to the challenges of aviation to human physiology and psychology was a seemingly casual affair, since the slow and level flight of pre-war machines demanded little of aviators other than strength and bravery.

During World War I, the naval aviation establishment grew from one air station, 54 aircraft and 48 aviators to 43 air stations (14 in the U S and Canada, the rest overseas, mostly in Europe), 2107 heavier-than-air machines and about 1600 aviators, both Navy and Marine. These men (thus it was in those days) were medically screened for training based on the rudimentary standards promulgated by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 1912. The physicians who cared for the aviators throughout the war were men who, by and large, had no special training or interest (unless they be Ear/Nose/Throat specialists) in the medical problems unique to flying. No formal naval flight surgeon training would be contemplated until after the war.

The one pilot protective apparatus instituted in these early years was the seatbelt restraining device. Pilots called for installation of the devices to keep them securely seated as their airplanes bumped along the rough airfields of Europe–in essence so they wouldn’t fall out of their machines! The aviators incidentally learned that the belts helped them in airborne maneuvering as well.

A British study of aviation-related deaths completed in 1917 showed that only 2% of these deaths resulted from enemy action and 8% to machine failure, while 90% were directly attributable to pilot problems; the American war-time experience was similar. Almost all early initiatives in the area of aeromedical research and training began with the Army. In 1918, the U S Army established the Air Service Medical Research laboratory on Long Island, NY. out of which came the Army School of Aviation Medicine. The Navy sent its first cohort of surgeons for training there in 1921, and the five men graduated on 29 April 1922. One of these men, LT Victor S Armstrong, MC, USN, received appointment as the first Chief of the Division of Aviation Medicine at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 1923.

I’ll take up the topic of interbellum aeromedical research in my next post on the history of U S naval aviation medicine.

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