Background: Medical screening is used routinely to qualify and classify candidates for pilot training. The respiratory system assumes even greater importance owing to the increased stress of flying high-performance aircraft in a hostile environment characterized by high altitude, varying acceleration ("G" forces), and the possibility of rapid decompression. Any respiratory dysfunction may threaten the pilot's health, flight safety, and completion of the mission. Only those candidates with the highest psychophysical score are accepted to undergo special aeromedical screening. Physical suitability is an important factor in the selection and classification of candidates for flight training programs, and pulmonary function testing is central within this screening protocol.
Methods: We developed a respiratory algorithm for this unique screening process. The algorithm represents a practical and efficient approach for large-scale screening of healthy candidates for flight training. The algorithm deals with the major pulmonary health problems encountered in a previously screened healthy population aged 17 to 25 years. If by anamnesis, physical examination results, or baseline spirometry findings there is reason to suspect a respiratory problem that could emerge to endanger the pilot's life, a specially designed evaluation is performed according to the algorithm. We explain, step by step, the basis for each suggested test in order to reach a decision (operational specifications). The pulmonary function studies we recommend are reasonably priced and can be easily and reliably performed by regular medical staff technicians. The major justification for performing pulmonary function studies in a healthy population that has already gone through a preliminary medical screening and has been found fit is to identify occult or latent abnormalities. These abnormalities may have no or minimal clinical expression under ordinary circumstances but, under the stress of flight during the ensuing 5 to 10 years, may produce serious limitation in function.
Results: Two cases, seen in the Air Force Medical Center, are presented to illustrate how the algorithm is implemented. The algorithm has been in use for more than 5 years, and has been applied to the screening of several thousand candidates. Follow-up of the accepted candidates has not revealed any significant defects in the decision-making process.
Conclusion: Use of the algorithm is highly cost-effective since it allows for nonspecialist physicians to carry out pulmonary screening and involves the pulmonary specialist only infrequently, ie, when a particularly complicated and/or borderline case is encountered. It is our contention that a similar algorithm would be useful in many other settings where large-scale screening is required.