Armstrong a true pioneer of aviation medicine and fitting USAFSAM exemplar

  • Published
  • By Kim Bowden
  • 711th Human Performance Wing

Maj. Gen. Harry Armstrong is a familiar name to those involved with aviation medicine and research, particularly in the military, thanks to a career dedicated to the improvement of flight safety. It makes sense, then, that he would somehow be affiliated with the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing here. Indeed, Armstrong did have a repeated connection, which makes him a fitting exemplar as the School continues its centennial celebration.

After a brief stint as a Marine, Armstrong went to medical school and was appointed a first lieutenant in the Medical Corps Reserve upon graduation in April 1925. His first association with USAFSAM came when he entered what was then called the School of Aviation Medicine that September. He graduated in 1930.

Five years later, Armstrong was selected to establish the Physiological Research Unit -- later called the Aeromedical Research Library and now called the Airman Systems Directorate, another unit under the 711 HPW. During his time leading the Unit, Armstrong and his team made numerous contributions to military and commercial aviation. He designed new flight wear to protect aircrews from extreme temperatures and gear to offer better oxygen supply at high altitudes; he pioneered the development of helmets, shoulder-style safety belts, and a horizontal altitude chamber; and he discovered that blood boils at 63,000 feet, an altitude limit now known as “Armstrong’s Line.” He and a co-worker also designed the first centrifuge in America, allowing scientists to investigate the physiological effects of G-forces on humans.

Following his time at the Research Unit, Armstrong was assigned as an attaché in England for a few months before being hand-picked in 1941 to return to the School of Aviation Medicine to establish a research division. That division worked closely with the Research Unit on equipment testing but also maintained an operator focus. Some of the early research areas included color and night vision, acoustics, and decompression sickness. By the end of World War II, the School’s research division had worked on more than 500 projects.

Armstrong went back to Europe to serve in various capacities for four years before returning once again to the School in 1946. He was first appointed assistant commandant and later named commandant, a role he filled for three years. Almost immediately after taking command, Armstrong proposed an Army Air Forces Medical Center, an academic research and clinical center that would be the hub for aerospace medicine. Although the plan was endorsed at the highest levels, it was put on hold while the Air Force was being deliberated as a separate service.

The next year, in 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound while wearing a suit developed by the Aeromedical Research Laboratory and assisted by personnel from the School. Armstrong saw that as the beginning of human space travel and created the Department of Space Medicine -- the first step in transitioning the School of Aviation Medicine into the School of Aerospace Medicine.

When Armstrong left the School in June 1949, he was assigned briefly as the Deputy Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force and, that December, was designated Surgeon General. Shortly after he was appointed, the Medical Center he proposed three years prior was approved.

During his lifetime, Armstrong published 105 scientific papers in the field of aviation medicine and aerospace medicine, along with two textbooks. He received the Collier Trophy, awarded annually for the greatest achievement in aviation, in 1939 and the John Jeffries Award, given for the greatest achievement in aviation medicine during the preceding year, in 1941, both for his contributions to the safety of aviation and the protection of pilots in flight. Indeed, Armstrong was the recipient of many awards, accolades, tributes, and fellowships during his career and after -- all befitting his legacy as one of the pioneers of aviation medicine.

To mark a century of operation, USAFSAM will celebrate throughout 2018. The year will include special heritage events as well as a monthly article highlighting a key “exemplar” from the School’s rich history. Maj. Gen. Armstrong was chosen as the March exemplar in part because of his mustache.