The world watched in fascination as Sir Richard Branson and five other passengers flew aboard the Virgin Galactic space plane, Unity 22, on July 10, 2021, to the outer edges of space, shattering the previous record of humans in space simultaneously. In addition to hours of training in simulators and onboard, health screenings are vitally important to spaceflight preparation.
A little closer to Earth, the skies above San Diego are also full of commercial and private aircraft departing from 11 commercial airports and military bases. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), San Diego has 2,534 licensed pilots and 1,553 airmen, who fly helicopters, gliders and balloons.
The FAA requires these individuals and those interested in obtaining a pilot’s license to have health screenings to get and maintain this certification. A local physician is helping to make that step a little easier for pilots and space voyagers. Dr. Jeffrey Dysart, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Community Medical Group, has been certified to perform these health screenings for Virgin Galactic space flight.
A passion for flight
Dr. Dysart, a pilot himself, comes from a family that fully embraces the wild blue yonder, with private and commercial pilots. In his office at the Genesee Medical Group in central San Diego, Dr. Dysart conducts exams for Class I (air transport), Class II (commercial) and Class III (private) pilots. He is well known and highly respected in the San Diego aviation community, not only for his knowledge and health screenings, but also for his love of flight. Always eager to share his enthusiasm for flying, he also works closely with a few local aviation schools to provide exams for their pilots.
Dr. Dysart is now one of a handful of designated senior aviation medical examiners (AME) with the FAA in San Diego County, and one of just two to have earned the designation to perform exams for Virgin Galactic in Southern California. Being an FAA senior AME has been a great part of his career, and he was thrilled at the opportunity to expand on his aviation medicine knowledge and be at the forefront of the next chapter of aeronautic medicine with Virgin Galactic. About seven years ago, Virgin Galactic requested the names of senior aviation medical examiners from the FAA who might be interested in providing health screenings for space flight. With Dr. Dysart’s background, certification and love of flying, he was quick to register for the opportunity.
Second AME joins the team
Dr. Tam Tran joined Genesee Medical Group in fall 2020, after finishing her residency and moving to San Diego from the Midwest with her fiancé. As a board-certified family medicine doctor, she enjoys seeing a wide variety of patients, from babies to older adults. She found herself interested in flight health screenings and pursued this challenging certification.
“The weeklong training was rigorous with lectures and programs, and because of COVID, it was virtual rather than in person,” Dr. Tran says. She received great on-site training from Dr. Dysart, who “allowed me, with the patient’s approval, to attend exams of prospective pilot’s screenings.”
Dr. Tran completed all the required training and passed the test. She is now a designated FAA aviation medical examiner (AME) and will start pilot health screenings soon under the tutelage of Dr. Dysart. Her goal for the future is to advance to a senior designation and become certified to perform the Virgin Galactic health screenings as well.
Rigorous health standards for air flight
Per the FAA, pilots must maintain good health, and their medical screenings are rigorous. First-class medical certificates are now valid for 12 months for pilots who have not reached age 40 at the time of their medical examinations. Pilots age 40 and over will continue to renew a first-class medical certificate every six months. EKGs are required for Class I exams at age 35 for baseline, then annually thereafter. Class II and Class III do not routinely require an EKG, but it may be necessary in some cases.
Results of vision and color blindness tests are two of the many screenings that are required by the FAA. Dr. Tran notes that the candidate’s health status and history in general are also very important. “A pilot may be denied a pilot’s license if they live with uncontrolled diabetes or have a history of heart attacks or seizures, among other things,” she says.
How to prepare travelers for interstellar flight
“Space flight screenings build on the FAA screenings but have a few added things, such as height and other measurements,” says Dr. Dysart. For instance, a person can be too tall or too short to fit into the space plane’s seat. “This measurement is not just the height but also the measurement in a sitting position, from pelvic bones to the top of the head,” he says. “The seats on the Unity 22 are specially crafted for safety and fit.”
Once a candidate has passed Virgin Galactic’s other metrics and initial training, they are referred out for the medical screening. The company’s goal is to screen 1,000 people for space flight, and Dr. Dysart is excited to help in this extraordinary evolution of flight into space.
“Going up to the edge of space like the Unity 22 space plane did is much tougher than returning because it’s more than standard gravity,” he says. “It’s a 3.5 gravity load on the body, meaning 3.5 times one’s body weight is what each person felt going into space on the space plane.” The Unity 22 craft reached the edge of our space and out of gravity’s pull.
“They experienced zero gravity for about 2 to 5 minutes,” Dr. Dysart notes. “Weightlessness — it’s exhilarating!” It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm when he says, “It is an exciting time to look up in the skies and dream about the future, up there in space.”