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What is Aviation Medicine?

By Jennifer Voight
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Aviation medicine is a type of occupational medicine that maintains the health, safety, and proficiency of humans during flight and treats conditions that arise in pilots, astronauts, crews, and passengers. The field of aviation medicine is also called flight, aerospace or space medicine. It includes human factors research, which concerns the interactions between humans and the machine interfaces of aviation systems. Aviation medicine may encompass various health and safety situations that may arise during flight, ranging from the managing the effects of air travel on a pilot's decision-making to preventing motion sickness in passengers. The field also oversees the medical examinations required for pilot competency certifications.

Pilots and crew members are of particular concern to aviation medical specialists because their performance affects the safety and comfort of dozens of passengers. Aviation medicine studies the factors that affect pilot performance, such as fatigue, disorientation during flight, medications, and medical conditions. Experienced pilots learn to adapt to the stresses of flight and learn ways to cope with rapid acceleration, problems with perception, pressure changes, and motion sickness. This field also encompasses the physical examinations pilots need to pass in order to maintain certifications.

To become accustomed to the demands of flight, student pilots train in simulators, machines that mimic spacecraft and airplane flight panels and can move to simulate the motion of a working airplane. During flight, human senses can be fooled by changes in altitude, direction, and acceleration, causing pilots to make serious mistakes or become incapacitated due to nausea. Experienced pilots rely on instrument readings over their sensory perception to make decisions.

One way that student pilots learn to trust instrument readings over human perception is to train in a barany chair that rotates. Students are asked to perform maneuvers while sitting in the chair, usually with their eyes closed. Changing head position or attempting to point to an object while spinning can help students become aware of how the vestibular system can create illusions of movement and equilibrium. An example of this is when sitting in an unmoving vehicle at a stoplight while looking at another unmoving vehicle a few feet away; the passenger’s car feels like it moves backward when the car next to it suddenly accelerates from a complete stop.

Aviation medical physicians do not work in traditional medical settings such as hospitals. They are employed by the military, organizations concerned with flight safety, and in research. Applications of knowledge from the field of aviation medicine can extend into non-aviation fields, such as mountain climbing and deep sea diving.

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Discussion Comments
By anon291427 — On Sep 14, 2012

Could an aviation doctor cure vertigo as well as problems with equilibrium and balance that are non-flight related?

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