Dr. James Garofalo Recalls his Days as a Flight Surgeon
Dr. James Garofalo, a general practice physician from Caldwell, N.J., is flying high in anticipation of his pilot’s license renewal this fall. Difficulties with recent health issues, which grounded him for a while but are now stable, have only reinforced his “acute perspective on good health,” and he’s raring to go, personally and professionally. A lively and articulate octogenarian with a lifetime of flying experience, Dr. Garofalo says he has always loved planes, making paper models as a child, and yearning to be a pilot. When he was 17, attending summer school in Amherst, he says he would use his money for traveling home (to Bloomfield) for flying lessons instead (dad wasn’t exactly thrilled). Though he wanted to go to West Point, he flunked the eye exam, but he did recoup: he became a flight surgeon. “I love flying machines and love to help people achieve good health.” Being a doctor and a pilot, he says, allowed him to pursue both passions.
The timing of Dr. Garofalo’s deepening interest in aviation back in the late ’50s coincided with dramatic change in the military and civilian aviation industries, sparked by Sputnik. Aeronautics was going supersonic, particularly in the form of the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to exceed the speed of sound. The significance of being a flight surgeon was immediately apparent to Dr. Garofalo, who had joined the Air Force and knew that supersonic travel would require more information about the “physiology of the human body.” He once did a study on motion sickness for Pfizer that showed that various experimental drugs were insufficient to counter adverse effects. He also researched the need for more oxygen in higher altitudes. And, of course, with challenging technical advances he came to a greater appreciation of the need for pilot fitness in all senses—physical, mental, emotional. The “most chilling” example of his aviation life, he recalls, was on his first flight alone in Anchorage—he was “shaking like a leaf”—could he do it? That he “slowly calmed down and took control” speaks of a psychological disposition that isn’t always manifest in curricular training.
Dr. Garofalo recently shared many of his experiences, as well as thoughts, about the future of aeronautics and careers with students at the Daniel Webster School of Aviation Sciences in Nashua, N.H., one of the two top flight schools in the country (the other is Embry-Riddle in Fla.). Daniel Webster, established about 44 years ago, was acquired just this past June by the parent company of ITT Technical Institutes. Daniel Webster is a for-profit proprietary college with a main campus of 54 acres next to Nashua Municipal Airport. The school offers associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees and boasts “exciting career choices” for graduates in the commercial, corporate, civilian or military sector; jobs include, besides being a pilot or doing research, airline management and airport traffic control. Increasingly, he notes, while airlines are downsizing, positions are opening up to pilots in the corporate world—the result of needing to do business more efficiently at home and abroad. And, of course, planes have become increasingly important in volunteer Angel flights that assist those with critical medical problems. Medical flights also include transporting organs from donors to recipients.
Dr. Garofalo’s emphasis on continuing education and training, as well as medical monitoring—not just annual EKGs but also cardiovascular exams—reflects a life-long appreciation of being fit. He remembers when he flew to Newport the day after John Kennedy Jr.’s plane crashed. There was heavy fog obscuring the shoreline. “I have 3000 hours of flight and instrument training. He had about 300 hours . . . I had to call the control tower to guide me—there was zero visibility.” There are FAA rules, but Dr. Garofalo would have pilots rise to the requirements and more by conviction: “Never quit training, take a check ride every two years at least to make sure you have the necessary skills [beyond required basics].” Would that such an attitude were embraced by those in all professions.#