Student pilot earns second set of wings
By Airman John Day, 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 25, 2014
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) -- One flight surgeon has recently taken the next step to become the 14th pilot-physician in the Air Force.
Capt. William Smith, a 14th Flying Training Wing Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 15-02 student, became the first pilot to earn his silver wings in the new pilot-physician selection process during a graduation ceremony Nov. 21 at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.
The path to becoming a pilot-physician in the United States Air Force can be daunting. Required are the silver wings of an Air Force pilot, one operational tour as a pilot, and to be a licensed physician with at least one year as a flight surgeon.
Attending the graduation was special guest Col. Bill Mueller, the director of the Air Force’s pilot-physician program. Mueller is also one of 14 pilot-physicians in the entire Air Force.
While pilot-physicians have the same day-to-day flight schedules as regular pilots, they are able to see the mission with two sets of expertise.
"The pilot-physician program allows the Air Force to leverage the dual expertise that we get from officers with experience in two very specialized areas and to help see connections between operations and human capabilities," Mueller said. "These officers have a depth and breadth of knowledge that enables the Air Force to solve complex problems involving humans and ensure mission success."
The program, though small, is open to many, including pilots who are already rated, medical officers who are flight surgeons and civilians with either of the two certifications and a desire to serve. By using the chain of command, those wishing to be considered can communicate with Mueller and submit a package for consideration of acceptance.
"You have to have tenacity," Mueller said. "You can't just pick up the phone and expect to get the ball rolling with just one phone call. A person who wants to pursue this field has to be really tenacious and make this a goal they strive for."
Mueller came to congratulate and welcome Smith into an elite career field combining two very specialized jobs.
"I always wanted to be a flight surgeon and to be involved in operational medicine, but I had never thought of being a pilot-physician until I got to Tyndall Air Force Base as a flight surgeon," Smith said.
It was only after hearing about one pilot-physician's story did he decide to pursue this unique career path.
"When I was in Tyndall AFB, Lt. Col. Jay Flottmann was flying F-22 (Raptor)s and he encouraged me to apply once they started allowing flight surgeons to apply to UPT," Smith said. "With his involvement in the F-22 hypoxia problem, I saw the benefit of having an aeromedical expert in the cockpit and that is what drove me to go the pilot-physician route."
Mueller was able to reflect on the F-22 problem as well and pinpoint why Flottmann was the ideal officer to help solve in this challenge.
"Col. Flottmann was able to put the problem into terms that pilots, doctors, congressional and Air Force leaders could understand because he carried such great credibility and experience in two specialized areas," Mueller said. "This ultimately helped reassure the Air Force that the F-22 was ready to return to flight."
One area that greatly benefits from pilot-physician expertise is human systems integration (HSI).
"Whether they are in a bomber, a fighter or a transport tanker, HSI helps commanders understand where the human fits in and how to help ensure that what these Airmen uniquely bring to the equation is going to be effective and optimized," Mueller said. "HSI helps the Air Force better utilize Airmen to power the Air Force mission."
Another area in which pilot-physicians are able to gather useful information is human performance. Mueller said Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Thomas W. Travis, the surgeon general of the Air Force and a pilot-physician, stresses the importance of human performance in accomplishing the Air Force's mission.
"Human performance is when you optimize Airmen's health in the context of performing the mission. Maximizing human performance increases combat capability," Mueller said. "It helps us fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace."
With a more streamlined process, the Air Force hopes to generate more bright minds for this vital role.
"We hope to grow the program to between 24 and 28 pilot-physician positions in the Air Force," Mueller said. "We believe the pipeline to select flight surgeons to attend UPT will help us reach this goal."