In January of 1980, flight attendants on Eastern Air Lines—at that point, one of the country’s largest operators—started finding tiny liquid red spots on their bodies. It looked, they said, like they were sweating blood. Panic ensued. Flight crews threatened to strike unless the airline addressed the issue. The case arrived at the desk of David Millett ’63, the airline’s medical director at the time. After traversing the country, observing various crews in action, he finally found the surprisingly mundane culprit: red paint from some new demonstration life vests—the kind flight attendants use to give preflight safety instructions to passengers—was flaking off onto the crews’ skin. “It was quite a startling event,” he says, noting that media interest was so high that it required two separate press conferences. “It’s not often you get a call from CBS telling you that Walter Cronkite has a question for you.”
Millett’s medical career began in the Air Force, where he worked as a flight surgeon, handling flight crews and their families, as well as—during a two-year stint in the Soviet Union—the medical needs of embassy staff. “One month, I kept track of the patients I saw from other embassies: 180 patients from 43 different countries,” says Millett. After the Air Force, Millett moved to Eastern Air Lines, where—in addition to sussing out the “red sweat” issue—he was on call for in-flight emergencies, eventually developing a program to ensure there was always a doctor available on the ground to dole out advice to flight crews.
After Eastern Air Lines folded in 1990, Millett became a flight surgeon at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), working on everything from standards for employee ear protection to recommendations for in-flight medical equipment packs. He retired from the FAA in 2006, but retained a position at the Civil Aviation Medical Association, planning meetings for the 400-member group, which is mostly made up of physicians who are Aviation Medical Examiners. He has similar responsibilities at the Airlines Medical Directors Association (AMDA), where he recently was named president, charged with answering press calls and planning the logistics and research agenda of the group’s annual get-together. “The biggest topic right now is how we evaluate pilots for mental illness,” says Millett, noting the March 2015 intentional downing of a Germanwings flight by a suicidal pilot. “How do you do it on a regular basis,” he says, “and what are your criteria?”
All told, Millett has now spent 45 years in aviation medicine, making him the perfect person to answer the proverbial “Is there a doctor on board?” call. It’s only happened a few times, though, he says—three, maybe four, and no disasters. “Really,” he says with a laugh, “I couldn’t say no.”