WASHINGTON – Former Air Force and Navy fighter pilots are calling on the military to begin cancer screenings for aviators as young as 30 because of an increase in deaths from the disease that they suspect may be tied to radiation emitted in the cockpit.
“We are dropping like flies in our 50s from aggressive cancers,” said retired Air Force Col. Eric Nelson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle weapons officer. He cited prostate and esophageal cancers, lymphoma and glioblastomas that have struck fellow pilots he knew, commanded or flew with.
Nelson’s prostate cancer was first detected at age 48, just three months after he retired from the Air Force. In his career he has more than 2,600 flying hours, including commanding the 455th Air Expeditionary Group in Bagram, Afghanistan, and as commander of six squadrons of F-15E fighter jets at the 4th Operations Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.
Last month, McClatchy reported on a new Air Force study that reviewed the risk for prostate cancers among its fighter pilots and new Veterans Health Administration data showing that the rate of reported cases of prostate cancers per year among veterans using the VA health care system across all services has risen almost 16% since fiscal year 2000.
The Air Force study also looked at cockpit exposure, finding that “pilots have greater environmental exposure to ultraviolet and ionizing radiation.”
Retired Navy Cmdr. Mike Crosby served as a radar intercept officer in F-14 fighter jets from 1984 to 1997, accumulating more than 2,000 flight hours. He started Veterans Prostate Cancer Awareness Inc. in 2016 after his own prostate cancer diagnosis at age 55.
“I think there’s been a lot of avoidance in addressing this issue,” he said. Crosby and other pilots said they suspect the cancers may be linked to prolonged exposure in the cockpit to radiation from the radar systems on their advanced jets or from cockpit oxygen generation systems.
None of the pilots said a greater risk of cancer would have kept them from flying. They said the military should acknowledge the risk and put additional protections in place for the next generation of military aviators. “If we can’t change it, we need to … send an alert that people being exposed need to be screened earlier,” Crosby said.