By Lisa Lopez Snyder

Growing up in Clark County, Ohio, where she danced ballet as a teenager, Col. (retired) Susan E. Northup, ’89 MD, had her sights set on a career dancing professionally. 

Asked by a local writer what she would do if she couldn’t dance, she replied she might become a doctor. “I’d see all my fellow dancers being injured,” she recalls saying. “They needed doctors.” Then, the last year of high school, she injured her knee. “So, the seed was planted.” 

Dr. Northup went on to become a flight surgeon with the U.S. Air Force, helping to keep airmen and the aircraft maintenance personnel fully fit and functional. The singular connection between dance and medicine was clear, she says: “Pilots and navigators are athletes.”

A fulfilling career in aerospace medicine

Like many Ohio State College of Medicine alumni who serve in the military, Dr. Northrup lauds the diverse opportunities physicians have to practice and make an impact on military and civilian lives.

In 2007, she retired from the Air Force. Today she is senior regional flight surgeon at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), responsible for the United States Operational Medicine Program, overseeing the health and well-being of traffic controllers who ensure the safety of the nearly 850 million flying passengers each year.

In addition, as flight surgeon for the FAA Southern Region, she is responsible for all aerospace medicine programs for 167,000 pilots and 5,000 air traffic controllers in eight states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Among her many duties are to ensure standards for airman certification, aviation medical examiner designation and performance surveillance, and emergency response planning.

“Military medicine prepares you to be flexible,” she says.

Indeed, her career path suggests so.

After her residency in internal medicine at Ohio State, she completed residences in aerospace medicine and in occupational medicine at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. She went on to serve in numerous capacities with the Air Force, including as chief of operational medicine (Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.) and chief of aerospace medicine (Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina).

In July 1990, her first assignment was at Moody Air Force Base, where she was the first female flight surgeon, flying behind F-16 pilots during training. Soon after, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and she joined the 69th Tactical Squadron during Desert Storm as one of three female flight surgeons sent to support the pilots flying combat missions.

Practicing aerospace medicine requires an understanding of the pilots’ environment, she says.

“Humans are meant to be a 1G, and these pilots are in planes that put them at better than 9G. So you have to think about things like how do you train pilots to withstand forces against the body, be it altitude with reduced pressurization or the rehabilitate an injured pilot.” In one case, she worked with an occupational therapist and the designers of the aircraft to establish a rehabilitation program to successfully return the pilot to the cockpit.

In later years, she also served in civilian settings while on active duty—as a regional medical director for Delta Airlines and as a medical consultant for the National Pilots Association.

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