Air Force aims for ‘weapons-grade’ vision

  • Published
  • By Sue Campbell
  • 59th Medical Wing Public Affairs
In June, the Air Force vice chief of staff and surgeon general approved wavefront-guided LASIK surgery for aviators in aircraft flying at altitudes of less than 14,000 feet. WFG-LASIK is a new generation of laser eye surgery that maps subtle irregularities in the cornea before the procedure, providing crisper vision and fewer side effects following surgery.

Standard LASIK is based on the person's glasses prescription. WFG-LASIK adds a measurement of more subtle total eye distortions, called higher-order aberrations. Based on technology that helps astronomers see twinkling stars more clearly, waves of light are sent into the eye and measured as they bounce back, forming a 3-D map of each person's unique wave patterns.

“WFG-LASIK is a major warfighter readiness issue which allows for less down time and quicker return to the cockpit for the Air Force’s aviation population. This is critical in today's expeditionary forces’ get-to-the-fight-quicker environment,” said Col. (Dr.) Robert Smith, chief of cornea and refractive surgery at Wilford Hall Medical Center here. “WFG-LASIK is a ‘performance enhancement’ procedure, and Air Force pilots feel this surgical procedure gives them a competitive or combat edge in the fight.”

Dr. Smith, who also serves as refractive surgery consultant to the Air Force’s surgeon general and program manager of the Air Force Warfighter Refractive Surgery Program, performed the first aviator WFG-LASIK treatment in September using the VISX-S4 wavefront laser. The VISX-S4 is currently being used by all Air Force treatment centers.

“That aviator now has 20/12 vision (better than 20/20 vision) without glasses and tells me that his night-vision performance has been tremendously improved,” Dr. Smith . “This is the typical result that I call an ‘improvement to the human weapon system,’ which gives our pilots the competitive edge in their work environment.”

The Air Force now has five Warfighter Refractive Surgery Centers and has performed more than 25,000 treatments since August 2000, when refractive surgery was approved by the Air Force’s surgeon general and chief of staff. Nearly 25 percent of the procedures were conventional and custom LASIK.

The Air Force is currently involved with the Navy in a collaborative WFG-PRK study to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval for WFG-PRK using the new VISX Fourier Custom treatment algorithms. This procedure gives the patient a more customized treatment with the potential of better visual acuity.

“Initial results are very promising with quality vision results better than the original treatment profiles,” said Dr. Smith.

At this time, WFG-LASIK is not approved for those aviators in high-performance aircraft (such as fighters and trainers) or those whose aircraft have cabin altitudes potentially above 14,000 feet. Conventional LASIK was not approved for any aviator.