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Introducing SAAsMA

Introducing SAAsMA

Most pilots and even doctors may never have heard of the Southern African Aerospace Medicine Association (SAAsMA) and even those who have heard of it probably have little idea of what it is and what it does. In essence, SAAsMA, which was brought into being in 1975, is a non-profit, professional association mainly concerned with the promotion and protection of the highest academic standards in aviation and space medicine in Southern Africa. It has no legal or institutional mandate from any government or parastatal institution, whether military or civil, which allows it to act independently and advise any person or body in the field of aerospace medicine. It is one of three main bodies in South Africa concerned with regulation of fitness to fly, according to ICAO recommendations. The other two are the Institute for Aviation Medicine (IAM) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). There was a time when the CAA was a relatively small body attached to the Department of Transport which had delegated most of its functions to IAM. However, it now has a medical department of its own which has taken back many of the functions that had previously been delegated.


What’s in it for us?

So, how does all this fine-sounding prose help aviators, air traffic controllers, cabin crew and others out there doing all the work? Some might think that SAAsMA spends all its time and energy dreaming up even more cunning plans to ground aircrew. Nothing could be further from the truth, as it has finally dawned upon regulatory authorities all around the world that professional pilots in particular are now major capital assets, given the amount of money spent on training them, getting them up to a high level of performance and keeping them there. The emphasis is now to keep them flying as long as it is safe for them to do so. It is not so long ago that a diagnosis of persistently raised blood pressure was a reason for permanent grounding, but given modern medications with minimal side-effects, and a better understanding of the long-term effects, they can now go on flying. Even though it may be a startling thought, even pilots with heart conditions can now go on flying, given suitable management and restriction to multi-crew aircraft. SAAsMA is very active in formulating protocols for particular medical conditions based on world-wide studies, which it passes on to the CAA Medical Department.


Doctors only?

Is SAAsMA a closed shop for doctors? Not at all, although full membership is mainly intended for Designated Aerospace Medical Practitioners (DAMP's). However, the website ( is open to everyone, as is associate membership, and this makes it an excellent vehicle for cross-discipline discussion through the Forum. Everyone working in the aviation industry should have the opportunity of discussing issues with others in different disciplines. Much dissension could be avoided if everyone knew how the other disciplines work, and helpful suggestions for improvement could go a long way towards promoting higher levels of Flight Safety.


A Very Hot Potato

There is one issue that is coming under closer study in aviation circles all around the world, and that is the vexing question of Pilot Error as a cause of accidents. This has always been a controversial area among pilots, mainly because it has in the past been used as a convenient get-out for the cause of an accident when no other explanation seemed viable, particularly in military flying where questions of rank and military discipline hold sway. The loss of the Chinook Zulu Delta 576 when it was inexplicably flown into the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland was one such. The issue is made even more difficult when personal feelings come into it (“I knew old Jim so well. It’s just not possible that he would do a stupid thing like that”) and dear old Jim is no longer around to defend himself. Also, anyone who has ever had anything to do with accident investigation knows full well that there is seldom, if ever, a single cause of accidents, most of which happen after a long chain of contributory events. Books like Ernest K. Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter”, and William Langewiesche’s “Aloft” also describe accidents where experienced pilots appeared to do inexplicable things. In fact, any pilot who is honest with him or herself can recall times when they narrowly escaped disaster, either by doing something that they had never done before, or not doing something that they usually do.

                Pilot error exists, but studying it is likely to produce a good deal more heat than light unless the protocols for studying it are very carefully worked out in advance, and sensitively used. This is where psychologists come into the picture, and here, a word of explanation is called for. A psychologist is one who makes a scientific study of the human mind and how it works, and should on no account be confused with a psychiatrist who is a medical doctor specialising in mental illness. We are lucky that in South Africa, we have an active Southern African Aerospace Psychological Association (SAAsPA) which is now a branch of SAAsMA.


Towards the Future

Another forthcoming
innovation by SAAsMA is an electronic medical examination form by which the
results of a periodic medical examination can be transferred to IAM or the
SACAA without having to make use of the increasing unreliability of the SA
postal service