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Doctors find solace in high places

At about 10 times the rate of other people, physicians are drawn to the challenge, thrill and freedom of flying.

Published July 20, 2003

2,000 FEET ABOVE MADEIRA BEACH - Tom Beaman looked down through the windows of the Cessna 172, at the glistening waves and curving rows of sugar-cube houses far below, and smiled.

He pointed south, where an ultralight plane skimmed over the water. Down below, a twin-engine plane zoomed west. On this sunny Sunday, the sky was almost crowded.

And it just might have been another pilot like Beaman at the controls - a pilot who's also a doctor.

For all the jokes about doctors on the golf course, there's another place doctors spend their free time: in the air.

When David Cahill, neurosurgery department chairman at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine, crashed a Beechcraft Baron in Memphis this month, many of his medical colleagues praised his flight skills. They knew because they're pilots themselves.

There's even a national group, the Flying Physicians Association. The group has counted 18,000 U.S. doctors who fly. Among them is heart and lung surgeon Bill Frist, U.S. Senate majority leader.

In Tampa Bay, doctors who fly include Richard Karl, chairman of the USF's surgery department; Daniel Greenwald, chief of plastic surgery at Tampa General Hospital; and Ernst Vieux, medical director of trauma services at Bayfront Medical Center.

The easiest explanation: Planes are expensive toys, and doctors can afford them.

But many local doctors - Beaman, Greenwald, former state Sen. Don Sullivan - learned to fly as teenagers. Sullivan, an orthopedic surgeon who no longer practices, started flying when he was 16.

"I just loved it," Sullivan said. "I started taking lessons in an old Piper Cub, with money I earned from tips being a busboy - much against my parents' desires."

Only a few doctors are pilots - about 1 in 50. But a doctor is roughly 10 times more likely to fly a plane than the average American. They represent about 3 percent of all U.S. pilots, including commercial ones.

"Medicine and flying," Karl wrote in a 1998 article for Flying magazine. "Where else do we put so much faith in another human being?"

Another challenge

Why are doctors drawn to the sky? After all, they know firsthand how much damage speedy travel can inflict. You might think they would prefer sedate pursuits - chess, cribbage, croquet.

Doctors being doctors, they all have their own theories.

"It's just another challenge," Beaman said. "The learning potential - it's kind of like medical school. You never stop learning."

Karl learned to fly in med school.

"It's a parallel sort of mastery," he said. "Med school, flight school...your first solo in either one. The adversary is a natural force."

For society's super-achievers, planes are just another advanced class. Flying means more procedures to learn and more jargon to master.

"They come from scientific backgrounds, from technical backgrounds," said Bob Cooper, president of Air-One Aircraft and National Aviation at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. "The science of flying appeals to these people."

Cooper should know. His wife, Irene Lipinski, is an anesthesiologist and a pilot.

Still, it's not just about science. Piloting and medicine demand similar traits, especially for surgeons, Greenwald said.

"You have these people who are super-intense," he said. "You have to assimilate a great deal of technical information and then use it in a very intense way. Piloting is very much like that."

Greenwald said the intensity of flying relaxes him.

"I get to recharge my batteries by directing all my mental abilities into one specific thing that's not work," he said. "Everything else in life takes a back seat to what you're doing" in the cockpit.

Doctors say they often can't take long vacations, so the logistics of private planes work better than flying commercial. And some use them for work. Rheumatologist Adam Rosen often flies himself to lectures he gives for other doctors.

"I love the flying aspects," Rosen said. "But I don't have enough's mostly for work."

Cahill was flying himself and three others to visit a medical equipment company when he and one of his passengers were killed.

But flying doctors will tell you that their planes are plenty safe.

"I've got about 900 hours, and I've never had one thing happen," said Beaman, a Clearwater internist. "No engine failure, no crash landing, never anything wrong."Element of risk

Greenwald said that pilots aren't taking that big a risk. Last year, 343 people died in private planes, a rate of 1.3 deaths per 100,000 hours in the sky.

"I would be willing to bet there are more doctors who fly than ride motorcycles," Greenwald said. "In a motorcycle, you don't have as much control over bad stuff."

Still, the element of risk attracts some doctors. Karl compared the unpredictability and risks of flying to that of surgery.

But he and others are aware of a downside as well. In some aviation circles, there are grisly jokes about doctors' flying records. One expensive plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, became known as the "doctor killer." Then there are stereotypes about medical egos - egos that have no place in a safe cockpit.

"I tend to be skeptical of doctors who are pilots, personally," Greenwald said. "I worry that they've come to it too late in life, when certain ego elements may...interfere with their ability to recognize danger."

Greenwald said he's not "making a blanket indictment," and Cahill also learned to fly young. Greenwald and Cahill owned the crashed plane together, and Greenwald and others say Cahill was a cautious pilot.

Federal agencies don't track pilots' safety records by profession. Members of Flying Physicians have a better-than-average crash record, said Pat Nodecker, the group's executive vice president, although she couldn't cite figures.

The jokes probably began, Nodecker said, because doctors were among the few who could afford more plane than they could handle. But these days, insurance companies require more training on high-performance planes.

"Our experience with doctors has been excellent," said Chuck Wenk, president of Wenk Aviation Insurance Agency.

Still, danger is on the minds of Tampa Bay doctors these days.

"It makes you wonder about yourself, and your own safety versus the thrill, versus the risk - and it's real," Karl said."It's just so much fun'

The day of Cahill's funeral, Karl and Greenwald went flying together to remember their friend.

But last Sunday, Beaman zoomed into the sky just for the pure joy of it.

"It's just so much fun," he said.

Beaman took off from Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, where he learned to fly back in 1970. On Sunday, he was fulfilling a personal rule: The day before, he returned from a Wyoming vacation on a commercial jet. He always goes up himself as soon as he's had to fly in somebody else's plane.

Over the years, Beaman has taken medical students aloft. A few of them have become pilots too.

He pointed out landmarks - the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, Egmont Key - and turned south, showing how even on a clear day, the horizon blurs into the sea. It's the mistake believed to have killed John F. Kennedy Jr.

The plane was tiny, a tin dragonfly that seemed too fragile to fly, cramped and hot. Beaman wore a Nike sweatband to keep the sweat out of his eyes.

But for him, it just doesn't get better than this. This is freedom.

"You can get up in the morning, and say, "I want to look at the Atlantic Ocean,"' Beaman said. "And an hour later, you can be there."

[Last modified July 20, 2003, 01:33:19]

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