The Role of Medicine in the Aviation and Aerospace Industry

3 mins
July 14, 2022

The aviation and aerospace industry is one of the most exciting career areas within the UK, with plenty of different roles to choose from. Springpod and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the regulator for the industry in the UK, have collaborated to provide an unprecedented virtual work experience and live week. Thousands of young people will have access to leading industry experts, interactive content, and invaluable information to find out more about careers in the industry.

Ahead of the virtual work experience and live week, Springpod spent some time with people from different areas of the CAA, to bring you closer than ever to the dedication and innovation within aviation and aerospace. In the fourth instalment of our blog series, you’ll hear from Ryan Anderton, Consultant in Aviation and Space Medicine. Ryan provides an incredible insight into this innovative and important area of medicine, looking at how it relates to the aviation and aerospace industry, along with sharing some personal experiences as to how he got into the career! Let’s get ready for take-off!

Why did you join the CAA?

I joined because it was the next and most logical step in my career for where I want my career to progress. In fact, I was approached by the CAA! 

My background is in General Practice as a Doctor, but I’ve always loved aviation and space and had a real passion for it, ever since I was a child. I didn’t actually discover aviation medicine until later on in my career, and I went about exploring it as soon as possible. On this journey, I met people from the CAA and was introduced to people who work in the medical department, and I completed a Diploma in Aviation Medicine. When I finished, the CAA approached me and asked if I wanted to undertake pilot medicals at the clinic at the CAA. 

Would you be able to explain in more detail your area of expertise?

I didn’t have much of an awareness of aviation medicine previously - when I was at medical school, you became a hospital doctor, specialist, GP, or surgeon. I didn’t even know this pathway existed, despite loving planes, flying, and everything to do with it. It’s a small area of medicine still, but it is growing - and it’s a really interesting area, too.

The main role of the medical department is to ensure that aircrew and air traffic controllers are safe to operate, fly, and control, and we regulate them from a medical point of view. This involves us making sure that they meet the medical standards which are in place by law, to ensure public safety.  Ultimately, that’s what the CAA is for - we’re here to ensure that the public and aircrew are safe. There are different offshoots in policy and guidance of course, but this is our core function. We also provide information to the public and government in relation to aviation health - this was particularly highlighted during the pandemic. 

What would a typical day look like in your position or department at the CAA?

A good question, but one that differs! Days are certainly different - I’d guess a ‘typical’ day would involve a lot of initial medical or case assessments for pilots and air traffic controllers to decide whether they are fit to go back to work, continue working, or if they’re not. 

I undertake lots of assessments, which is typically considered desk-based work. It’s likely I might speak to a consultant specialist advisor - that might be a cardiologist for instance, and we could discuss a case and next steps. On top of this, I can often have meetings with other members of the medical department throughout the day, I’ll typically speak to pilots and aeromedical examiners, to give advice about the right fitness to fly, along with the import regulations of course. I promise it sounds a lot more interesting than it sounds! 

Days can become a little different, too - some days, you might find yourself travelling up to the RAF centre for aviation medicine, and using a centrifuge to teach pilots about G-Force! There’s plenty of interest and variety within this field! 

What benefits do a background in STEM have?

Surprisingly, this is difficult to answer - obviously, if you don’t have some qualifications or a background in STEM subjects, you can’t train to become a doctor, but there’s more to it than that. The answer you’d typically get from people is that it gives you a wide platform for opportunities across a real different range of careers, from doctors to engineers to lab research.

Personally, I couldn’t do what I’m doing if I hadn’t done STEM. I think that if you study STEM, it gives you a lot of skills and knowledge that you can apply to all areas of working life, not just science! If you study STEM, I think the benefits that you gain can put you in a good place elsewhere, and that’s really valuable. 

If you could give advice to anyone keen to pursue a career in aviation and aerospace, or within the CAA, what would it be?

One thing I’d advise is that it might be easy to assume either way, but you can’t join the CAA in order to train medically. I know it might sound obvious, but it’s normally the case that you’d work for someone like the CAA later in your career, once you’ve qualified as a doctor and gained experience. This is because there are specific requirements that you need to become involved in aviation medicine as a doctor, but it’s well worth it!

My main advice is to find out as much as you can, as early as you can - and don’t be afraid to ask questions from people within the industry about their life, experiences, and advice they have to offer.

It sounds patronising, but remember to work hard! If you put the effort in now and do as well as you can in school or education, the windows of opportunity within your life will remain open for longer. 

What do you believe is the biggest misconception that people may have about the CAA?

Thinking back to what I thought before I joined - I didn’t know too much about it to be honest! For me, I think we can often be seen as this brick wall of regulation and authority and a barrier to preventing people from doing things. Obviously, we’re a regulator, and that means we have an obligation and duty  to step in 

Do you see any particular areas becoming more of a focused priority for the CAA in the future?

The CAA became the UK’s space regulator last year, so that’s definitely going to be a priority for now and in the future - from a medical point of view, we’ll be looking at medical standards for space flight participants, space tourism, as well as hopefully human spaceflight programmes. 

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