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Fearful pilots reluctant to speak out

The Deleware News Journal

Many would be grounded if military knew the extent of their ailments

As Air Force personnel in Dover struggle with fears about the anthrax vaccine and tainted lots, active and retired military pilots also are frightened about another scenario: Being grounded.

Dozens of active and retired military pilots who fly commercially were afraid to speak out publicly when interviewed by The News Journal about the anthrax vaccine and squalene. They said their careers could be jeopardized if the extent of their illnesses was made known.

Pilots stand to lose a lot. In 2002, median annual earnings of airline pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers were $109,580. The median annual earnings of commercial pilots were $47,970.

Aviation medical examiners, on a contractual agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, evaluate the health of pilots to determine whether they are physically and mentally capable of flying an airplane.

Pilots who fly for major airlines, known as Class 1 pilots, receive physicals every six months. Pilots who fly exclusively for private corporations, known as Class 2 pilots, may be required only to receive annual physicals.

If a pilot is exhibiting signs of autoimmune disease, he or she must instantly be grounded until further investigation, said Dr. John Hocutt Jr., a Wilmington-based aviation medical examiner. "Autoimmune diseases are very serious," he said.

Some civilian researchers, such as Dr. Pamela Asa of Tulane University, believe that trace amounts of squalene injected into the human body suppress the immune system, causing autoimmune disease. Former Dover Air Force Base commander Col. Felix Grieder has accused the military of running an illegal experiment on his troops by adding squalene to the anthrax vaccine.

As Hocutt conducts detailed examinations of the pilots - with an emphasis on vision and previous medical history - he also relies on how forthright they are about their health.

Hocutt has examined 2,000 to 3,000 pilots, several of them former Air Force pilots out of Dover who now fly commercially, in his 20 years as an aviation medical examiner. In that time, he has denied about 25 pilots from flying. According to the FAA, 3,444 pilots were denied their license for medical reasons in the United States in 2003. Data for Delaware were not available.

Arthritis and memory loss can be symptoms of autoimmune disease. Hocutt said it would be very difficult for a pilot who has severe joint pain and arthritis to pass the physical - even if they neglect to mention the symptoms on the physical's questionnaire. But it's possible that they could pass the physical if they suffered from intermittent memory loss.

"They could seem perfectly normal when they come in to see me. But if they don't tell me the truth on the form, it would be possible for them to get by," Hocutt said. "You have to be absolutely healthy to fly."