Wilson Gilliam Jr.
I stood in front of a Marine Corps recruiting office in 1988. I wanted to take the aviator’s aptitude test and join the Marines as a helicopter pilot. But, after a few minutes with the Sergeant, I realized that wouldn’t happen.
Between thirteen years old and eighteen, my visual acuity had decreased to 20/400. Even though it was still correctable to 20/20, the heavy eyelid morning routine of prying a way in for the contacts and the saline solution was getting rough. I wanted a permanent solution to the problem of seeing only the single, large E on the eye chart. I wanted to read the “made in USA” line without any help!
I had recently read a news article about the Russian military providing a corrective surgery called radial keratotomy (RK) for their soldiers that were nearsighted. Some further investigation revealed that a laser version of RK, called PRK (photorefractive keratectomy) was already being performed by a doctor in Windsor, Canada. Although the procedure was not yet legal within the United States, I could travel to Canada and get my eyesight corrected. That’s exactly what I did.
Armed with my new, crystal clear vision, I dived headlong into a career in aviation. I began teaching students in an Aeronca Champ and then in a Schweizer 300CBi helicopter, after I earned my helicopter flight instructor certificate. Our company went on to accomplish various things like flying an R-44 in the Florida keys for tours, repairing live power lines from a work platform, sling loading, side pulling in rope for new transmission conductors and many other things.
The improvement to my eyesight was a catalyst for the release of business fuel into my career in aviation. This was a motivation that lasted fifteen years, ending in 2014 when I sold my company.
During my final year at work, I noticed a high-pitched ringing noise in both ears as I would head back into the office after a flight. The episodes would increase in frequency each week and finally after a couple of months, the ringing in my ears was permanent. I went to see an audiologist and after an afternoon of tests, I learned that I had lost most of my hearing within a certain frequency range. The loss of hearing was creating a condition called tinnitus, which I live with today.
Shortly after the diagnosis of tinnitus, I noticed that a corner of the vision in my right eye had turned dark. A trip to the eye doctor revealed my worst fear – I had aggressive glaucoma.
When most people think about flying, they concentrate on protecting their eyes. But don’t forget about maintaining health in other areas. Protect your hearing. Even though I always wore headsets (or a flight helmet) it’s not enough. Put earplugs in as well. This should eliminate any long term hearing damage.
The most important lesson I learned from this experience should be that a routine, thorough medical exam (not just through your friendly FAA medical doctor) is super important in catching additional vision and hearing problems before they develop into serious issues. If I was able to travel back in time to the beginning of my career in aviation, I would go see eye and ear specialists every five years as a pilot. Ask your doctors to compare the condition of your eyes and ears to your last visit(s). There are stresses on those parts of the body that need to be closely tracked. If you can catch a starting and / or worsening condition quickly, it may not become debilitating.