Laser gives mids vision to fly

Academy: Thanks to eye surgery, more qualify to be Navy pilots.

February 27, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

BETHESDA -- Midshipman Graham MacDonald zips around in a sports car. He plunges down mountains on a snowboard. And he surfs monster waves after hurricanes.

But because his vision was too lousy to make out even the big "E" on an eye chart, the Naval Academy junior resigned himself to a job aboard surface ships, plodding vessels that offer as much driving excitement as the Goodyear blimp.

Then MacDonald's career prospects took a hairpin turn. At the National Naval Medical Center here one recent Thursday, a doctor fired a laser beam into his eyes and then said words that were like a purring jet engine to his ears: "You have pilot's vision now."

Laser eye surgery, still a niche procedure in the civilian world, is reshaping futures across the military academies. For generations, aspiring pilots born with anything less than perfect sight were shunted into non-aviation fields or, at best, careers as "backseaters," working behind the pilot.

Now, the eyesight needed for lightning-quick maneuvering in a cockpit can be acquired, at taxpayers' expense, in 15 minutes at a doctor's office.

About 275 members of MacDonald's class -- nearly 80 percent of those who entered Annapolis with less than 20/20 vision -- will leave with surgically perfected eyes. That's up from 50 students in the Class of 2001, the first offered the procedure.

At the Air Force Academy, 31 cadets have chosen to go under the laser since the start of its program last fall. The U.S. Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y., sent its first cadet for eye surgery this month.

If the country goes to war with Iraq, some fighter jets prowling above the Persian Gulf will likely have surgically sharpened eyes in the cockpit.

The academies' laser surgery programs are an expansion, in scope and purpose, of those available to active-duty troops. The Navy started its program in 1997, and the Army and Air Force followed in 2000 and 2001. The goal was to hone the performance of troops in key combat jobs.

Soon, the academies wanted in. Military officials believed the surgery would stiffen competition for prestigious jobs as pilots and special warfare officers.

They also want to protect the country's investment in academy students, who cost $250,000 each to educate. Military officials hope the procedure will open career doors that keep graduates in the military beyond the required five years.

Surgery recipients are already edging out rivals who might have made the cut for pilot jobs in years past. This year, 327 members of the Naval Academy's senior class competed for the 267 pilot slots for Annapolis grads. Of those picked, 57 had undergone the eye surgery.

Forty-five seniors competed for 16 academy slots with the SEALs, the Navy's special warfare arm. Four of those picked had undergone the surgery.

One academy junior, Kris E. Von Krueger, said he chose the academy over a college with a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program because of the surgery's availability.

"I bet on the fact that I could get this surgery to fly," said Von Krueger. "If I was going to subject myself to the extra rules and regiment of the academy, I wanted to get a reward that was proportional."

MacDonald now has his eyes on the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter plane. "I'm always pushing the limit," he said. "It's kind of hard to do that on a ship that goes 28 knots."

Laser eye surgery is still in the study stage in the military. About 1 percent of the patients wind up with worse vision; up to 5 percent have reported decreased night vision, haze, halos around lights and difficulty distinguishing objects in low-contrast settings such as snowy mountains or deserts.

How the reshaped eyes hold up under extreme gravitational forces is another concern. And a study is under way comparing the performance of pilots born with perfect vision with that of surgery recipients.

So, the academies are moving with caution. Of the 500 Air Force cadets picked for pilot slots each year, no more than 50 can have had the surgery.

In the Navy, students must wait three months and have doctors confirm that their eyes have healed before they are deemed eligible to fly.

Still, so many of the Naval Academy's top students now have the eyesight to fly that some specialties are failing to draw the interest they once did. Last year, for the first time, the academy sent fewer than its quota of 140 graduates to submarine jobs, a field that has tended to attract those with good grades but less-than-perfect eyesight. It missed its quota again this year.

Navy personnel officials say they do not view the eye surgery as a significant factor in the academy's failure to produce more submarine officers.

The Navy was the first military branch to embrace the surgery. In 1993, growing concerns about the use of glasses and contact lenses in cockpits and in special warfare led Navy doctors to study procedures gaining credibility in medical circles.

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