Mideast edition, Thursday, June 7, 2007

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Air Force has become the first branch of the military to allow aspiring pilots and aircrew members to apply, even if they have had LASIK corrective eye surgery.

Effective May 21, the policy change also removes the altitude and high-performance aircraft restrictions for people who have had LASIK, which is short for “laser in-situ keratomileusis.”

Since 2001, the Air Force has allowed applicants to try for spots as pilots or aircrews on high-performance aircraft if they had a different kind of corrective eye surgery known as photo refractive keratectomy, or PRK.

Air Force surgeons said they needed more time to evaluate LASIK, a newer procedure that causes less pain to patients and requires less recovery time.

Like PRK, LASIK works by using an excimer laser to change the shape of the cornea, the clear covering on the eye.

In LASIK, surgeons use a knife, called a microkeratome, to cut a flap in the cornea, leaving a hinge at one end. The flap is folded back to reveal the middle section, or “stroma,” of the cornea, and pulses from a computer-controlled laser vaporize a portion of the stroma. The flap is replaced, and the patient is sent on his or her way.

Air Force surgeons said they were concerned with this LASIK flap, which doesn’t exist with PRK surgery.

The surgeons noted that pilots and crews aboard some airframes, such as C-17s, AC-130s, or U-2s, fly and work at very high-altitude, low-oxygen conditions.

No one knew how well LASIK-treated eyes would hold up, according to an Air Force Medical Service Web site on the U.S. Air Force Refractive Surgery Program.

Air Force surgeons also were concerned about what might happen to the healed-over flap if pilots or aircrew had to eject at high altitudes, but studies eventually showed there was little to no effect, according to the Web site.

The Marines and Navy also allow pilot and aircrew candidates to have undergone PRK, and are studying LASIK, Jan Herman, a spokesman for the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, said Tuesday.

In March, Capt. Christopher Armstrong, director of aerospace medicine for the Navy, told Navy Times that the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery was in the final administrative stages of approving LASIK for Navy and Marine pilots and aviation candidates, and that he expected to be recommending waivers for the procedure for aviators for both services this fall.

The Army, meanwhile, only allows pilot and aviator candidates who are enrolled in the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory-approved protocol, or study program, to follow PRK and LASIK through flight school to have the surgery. All other pilots and candidates are not eligible to have the surgery.

In the U.S., prices for LASIK (both eyes) range from about $1,000 on the low end to $6,800 on the high end, depending on location and individual needs.

But active-duty servicemembers — including the newly opened pool of Air Force aviation candidates — can apply to receive either operation free at military medical facilities. The waiting list is long, however, and priority is based on mission requirements.

For more information on the Air Force’s policies, including information on applying for LASIK or PRK, go to

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