Aviators and cancer…

This came over the mil email net and I wanted to share it for those who might be interested…

Increased cancer risks in military aviators.  I normally do not post things on-line or to various groups, but I believe the info below is something of interest to those of us who flew Tomcats/Fighters.

“The Air Force has begun to look at whether there’s increased risk for prostate cancer among its fighter pilots. A new investigation by McClatchy shows just how serious the problem may be.

The fighter pilot study was requested by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein after he was contacted by concerned veterans service organizations in 2018, according to the report obtained by McClatchy.”

Many of you have seen the articles written by Tara Copp of McClatchy News as they have appeared in Defense News, the Early Bird and in the Virginia Pilot, as well as other publications.  Below are some links to her first two articles as well as a link to the referenced Air Force Study.



Cancer incidents among USAF fighter pilots and non-fighter pilot officers by Brian Murphy, HERE.  

I have been battling esophageal cancer for the last 7½ years, in addition to being treated for brain cancer in 2003.  All of this led me to wonder if there was anything in my service background that could have caused these problems particularly after discovering several close friends had also battled various cancers.  I have been working with Tara for about the last 7 months attempting to uncover any links between Naval Aviation and an increased incidence of cancer and I believe I have found some possible correlations possibly to the aircraft weapons systems and the physical environment of the flight deck.

The Air Force Study was requested by a group of former Air Force F-15 pilots who believe there is an increased incidence in prostate cancer across their retired community.  They requested Gen Goldfein conduct the Study, which unfortunately I feel was completely irrelevant.  It was supposed to be a joint service effort but instead only included Air Force active duty personnel.  They looked at two groups – fighter pilots (FP) and non-fighter pilots (non-FP) with an average age of 41.  According to their statistics they found no difference in the incidence of cancers across the two groups. I would encourage you to read the Study yourself and form your own conclusions.

I believe there are several problems with the Study they conducted.  First, while the two groups had similar cancer incident rates both groups were still 7 times higher than the cancer incident rates for the same age group according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program (SEER) data.  Second, the question has no bearing on those of who have completed their flying careers – I would like to know if there is there an increased incidence of aggressive cancers in former fighter pilots sooner than it appears in the general population? 

In my research I determined there needed to be some boundaries on the data I was collecting.  It would be virtually impossible for me to identify all former F-14 pilots/RIO’s.  Since most of the individuals I knew were all former F-14 squadron commanders I used that parameter as my initial boundary.  Using the Change of Command announcements listed in past issues of Naval Aviation News I was able to determine there are approximately 600 Squadron Commanding Officers from the F-14, F-4, A-7, A-6, F/A-18, EA-6B and E-2 communities from 1985 through 2001, with 134 of those from the F-14 community.  I know of 10 individuals from this community grouping who have had cancer.  My best estimate is the average age at diagnosis is about 60 years old or 15-20 years after their last flight.  And while this is a small sample size it is still at a rate of 7 times the general population according the SEER data.

To be very clear I am extremely concerned with the privacy issues associated with a cancer diagnosis and I will ensure the names of anyone who has battled or is battling cancer is never released to anyone.  But I am still trying to expand my data base – if you do happen to know of someone within the aviation communities listed above please let me know off-line.  

The obvious question people ask me is “why are you doing this”?  Cancer has completely changed my life and I have found myself asking “why did this happen to me”?  There is no history of cancer in my family, I do not fit the demographics for esophageal cancer (never been a smoker) and I have led a lifestyle healthier than most.  I have wanted to fly fighters from an aircraft carrier for as long as I can remember – even if you would have told me I would have a greater chance of developing cancer I would have still pursued my dream.  I have experienced the most challenging and exciting aviation experiences while providing me with the privilege of serving and developing friendships with the absolute finest individuals this country has ever produced.

You cannot convince me the Air Force fighter community was exposed to more hazardous materials than we were.  The F-14 radar was more powerful than their radars/weapons systems and the flight deck and aircraft carrier – where we lived and worked for months at a time – was essentially a petri dish of hazardous and toxic materials.  But I am not convinced the Navy comprehended what it did not know at the time – what would be the long-term effects of these exposures?  Cancer develops over time, sometimes in a few years sometimes over 15-20 years.

I would like to see DoD, the Navy and the VA approach this issue as they have the Agent Orange, Burn Pit and military base water contamination issues.  The primary purpose would be to inform all the potentially effected individuals to encourage cancer screening early and often, either through the VA or private health care services.  They should agree to research and track the health of Naval Aviators 15-20 years after the end of their flying careers to determine if there is an increase in the incidence of aggressive cancers as compared to the general population; investigate as to if there is an increased incidence rate of aggressive cancers in our enlisted men and women who worked the flight deck (squadron maintenance personnel and members of the Air Department); begin to track the health of our female fighter pilots to determine if they are developing aggressive cancers sooner than the similar age group in the general population.  I do not believe the names of all former F-14 pilots and RIO’s is archived anywhere – it will only be through the development of surveys that are posted to various web sites along with the development of a comprehensive web-enabled database the respects privacy issues that this information will be properly disseminated.

If you would like to contact me with comments or suggestions my email is above.  Please do not post any names to the Facebook group and feel free to pass this info along to others as you see fit.

Tom “Boot” Hill, former CO/XO VF-143, 1992-1994

If you need to reach out to him, or have information, contact me and I will provide his email to you.


Aviators and cancer… — 14 Comments

  1. Interesting. I spent time in areas that were sprayed with AO and have had issues that may, or may not, have been connected including cancer. I do hope this issue is investigated and resolved.

  2. Interesting, one causal factor I immediately thought of was elevated radiation exposure (maybe because of my background in nuclear power). Fighters tend to spend more hours at higher altitudes than other aircraft types. Over a career, the exposure could be significant. I don’t have any answers, and when dealing with cancer it becomes very difficult to identify causal factors with any repeatability. Also isolating a single causal factor is almost impossible. However, studies should be made and if statistically significant correlations are found compensation should be provided.

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  5. Altitudes is one possibility.

    Interesting questions include a) What were the specialties of the non-FP officers? b) What are common exposures of AF officers?

    If the service crews also show a higher rate, then chemicals may be the explanation. If they do not, altitude or systems not operated on the ground.

    For the last, radar has some interesting possibilities for unusual variations between Navy and Air Force pilots. Power is obvious, but frequency could have medical significance, as well as the shape of the beam from the antenna.

    We have better tools than when those planes and systems were designed. Are they good enough that it is time we reexamine what exactly happened and use that to figure out what we need for the next generation of tools?

  6. Jim- There is that too… sigh

    NRW- Yep, LOTS of time at altitude with nothing but a canopy separating you from radiation. There was a study years ago that aviators had an ‘unusual’ preponderance of female children vs. the average population. I think that plays in too.

    RC- Got it. And it’s been an interesting week. Hundreds of spams after my posts about Thunberg…

    Bob- That is an avenue I ‘believe’ is being looked at.

    • Long-haul airline pilots tend to have more cataracts than the average population of that age. Radiation exposure again seems to be the most likely factor.

  7. Interesting stuff. And interesting comments from everyone.
    Thank you all.
    As a VN Vet we were all exposed to AO. I’m 72, and probably healthier than my forebears at this age, but I’ve been diagnosed as diabetic recently. There’s a family history of it, so is mine AO related?
    Hard to tell for sure.

  8. Prostate cancer would be hard to prove causation for. I’ve been told by a former family doctor (now retired) that every man has or will have prostate cancer of some type. It’s just that most of us die from something else before the slowing growing type really becomes an issue.

  9. Being a missileer, I spent nearly a year underground. I’m doing well. Nasty chemicals in Titan II, but inside the missile and inside the launch duct, which I stayed out of. In Minuteman, the birds were 3 miles and more away.

  10. Lejeune had serious decades long exposure in ground water. I think K-Bay did to although not as bad. El Toro is still being tread a decade or more after closure. Maybe your stations will show incidence.

    I think of the av fuels and lubricants. Most of these mist very easily. Think aerosols.

    I haven’t mentioned AO since that is well known and reported on. I thought my dad was far enough away from those areas in his three tours. Such was not the case.

    Pearl’s comment is highly encouraging.

    • I was wondering about the fuels and lubricants too. As well as possible consequences of long term exposure to the side lobes of a lot of RF emitters.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if individual genetic quirks that slow down DNA repair make some people more vulnerable to the effects of both.