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The Air Up There Podcast

Dr. Susan Northrup Makes Aviation History

Season 2, Episode 5
Published: Friday, March 19, 2021

In this special episode, we're celebrating Women's History Month with a remarkable woman who made FAA history this year. In January, Dr. Susan Northrup became the first woman to serve as the FAA's Federal Air Surgeon. She is an accomplished medical professional, a retired Air Force colonel, and a private pilot.

In this episode, our reporter Liz Cory talks with Dr. Northrup about her career journey and her goals as Federal Air Surgeon. You can read more about Dr. Northrup in this recent article she wrote for Safety Briefing Magazine.

Dr. Susan Northrup Makes Aviation History

Dr. Susan Northrup Makes Aviation History

Transcript

Steve Dickson:
Hi, I'm FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, and you're listening to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and aerospace. Today's episode is in honor of Women's History Month and we're highlighting a woman who made history at the FAA this year. I'm excited for you to listen to this interview with Dr. Susan Northrup, who was the first woman to serve as the Federal Air Surgeon for the FAA. Dr. Northrup is a longtime colleague and friend of mine. She's an accomplished medical professional, a retired Air Force Colonel and a private pilot. She's been instrumental in leading the agency's COVID-19 response too. It's leaders like Susan, who help our agency maintain the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.

Liz Cory:
Dr. Susan Northrup is the Federal Air Surgeon for the Federal Aviation Administration, where she leads the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine. She oversees the FAA's Medical and Human Factors Research. She is a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and deployed during Operation Desert Storm. She's a private pilot, she's board certified in aerospace medicine and in occupational medicine. She's authored several scientific papers on accident investigation, the use of sleep aids by pilots, cabin air quality, and bio-terrorism.

Liz Cory:
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of her incredible resume. In fact, when she was appointed to her current position that we'll discuss today, she was heralded as the right doctor for difficult aviation issues. Dr. Northrup, thank you for your service. It is a tremendous honor and pleasure to have you join us here today, as we discuss Women's History Month and especially, recognize women of an incredible achievement, welcome to our podcast.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Thank you very much for having me.

Liz Cory:
Our first question is really discussing, your new position as the first female, Federal Air Surgeon for the FAA. Obviously your title, Federal Air Surgeon, a very important position, but really we're looking at the fact too, that you're the first female, the first woman to hold this position. How does it feel?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
It's still a bit surreal, I have to admit, it's one of those things. This is such a vibrant organization, the Aerospace Medicine Division, the Office of Aerospace Medicine is filled with just the world's best people and to be given the opportunity to actually lead this organization is an incredible honor and at the time, very humbling.

Liz Cory:
Dr. Northrup, can you tell us what came first, your passion for aviation or your passion for medicine? How did it all come about and who was your inspiration?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
That's a great question. So my first passion was ballet.

Liz Cory:
Really?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Yeah.

Liz Cory:
So you wanted to become … You didn't want any of this? You wanted to be a dancer?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Well, in fact, I was a professional ballerina. Now, granted, they didn't pay me much.

Liz Cory:
I didn't know that, that's fantastic.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Yeah. So I was in my last year of high school and I was interviewed by a teacher for the county newsletter and she asked me, what I would do if I couldn't dance? And bless her heart, she let me have five minutes because I literally, sat there about that long, it felt like forever. And I said, "Well, maybe I'd become a doctor." And she went, "Why?" And I said, "Because I can see what my fellow dancers are doing that is causing them harm."

Dr. Susan Northrup:
So I came at medicine through a preventive slant already, preventing injuries. So when in fact, I became injured myself, and had to lay off dancing for a while, I went ahead and I enrolled in the university and pursued a pre-med program. Now at Ohio State, there was no such thing as a pre-med degree, so I ended up getting one in chemistry, but my love was still preventive side.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
So I began to look at scholarships and the Air Force had one and it was called, Pre-health Professions Scholarship, where they paid for the last two years of undergrad tuition, books, lab fees, and a stipend and earmarked one for medical school for you, if you met certain criteria and maintained your grades. And that's how I ended up in the Air Force, but between my junior and senior years of undergraduate, and we did this thing called, Operation Air Force, Third Lieutenants Program, and I discovered aerospace medicine.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
I grew up at the end of the runway, right at Patterson, so I knew about airplanes, but I didn't know about this field of aerospace medicine, until I did this. So I spent two weeks with the flight surgeons and talk about a cool job. Their main desire, mission if you will, was to keep pilots healthy and flying and to support the people that made sure that the airplane could get off the ground. And they got to fly themselves, had to, four hours a month. Darn. And that sparked something in me. I deployed to a war zone and taking care of a unit, a wing, to be sure we met what the United States needed us to do. So I went back and did my residency in aerospace medicine.

Liz Cory:
Why is it so important for a pilot to be physically fit or to be an athlete?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
So while the average flight that we think about, as we get in an airplane, we fly to a destination, there's not much turbulence, one hopes. And there's not much of a critical nature that occurs, but when things go wrong, you need to be fit. You need to be resilient. You need to be able to respond to the crisis that are there, regardless of whether you're flying a Cessna 150, a Stearman or a 787.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
The military has been pretty inclusive, at least throughout my entire career, so I never felt that I was treated necessarily, differently when it came to professional issues. Now, there were some things that we had to work on, for instance, when you're flying in an F-16, which is what Moody had at the time, being smaller-statured and having a waist, we had to figure out how to modify the equipment to fit me. And certainly, since they introduced women to the cockpits in the military, that has ceased to be an issue anymore. But yeah, when things are designed for men, you've got to do some adjustments for women, just because of the size, not because we can't do it.

Liz Cory:
Is it truly an easier path now, for women in the workforce and women in the military?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
It's easier and it's gotten better, certainly over time, and when one considers that the first class to graduate with women, as the administrator said, from the U.S. Air Force Academy was 1980. And one of my girlfriends was the second woman admitted, who went on to become a flight surgeon, for what it's worth. It's a matter of changing some of the mindset and things people don't think about, like bathrooms and where those are, with respect to things.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
In the fighter community even, how does a woman, if she needs to relieve herself … You might want to cut this part. How does a woman go to the bathroom, mid-flight in an airplane where she strapped in and we had to overcome some of that? And being a test subject, as we were figuring that out, occasionally got really humorous because some of the devices people were coming up with were, "Yeah, one of you should have tried to sit on this for an hour." I'm just saying, but we figured it out.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
And it was female flight surgeons that really, ended up paving some of the human factor responses into the fighter community, for the women that are flying now. Being a woman, it had some interesting challenges. So if you're one of the very few, people watch and they watch pretty closely, but they also tend to reward you if you do well. I was very lucky, my commanders were very supportive. The pilots I flew with, well, they didn't quite treat me as one of the guys because I wasn't, they treated me as one of the officers, which was the best I could ask for anyway.

Liz Cory:
What brought you to the FAA? How did you get to the FAA?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
So I left active duty in 2001 and transitioned to the reserve. And initially, I worked for Delta Airlines, which was another great experience, working in an industry. I learned so much about how airlines function and how then, ATA worked, which is now A4A. I managed to work through the first SARS epidemic as one of the doctors at Delta, responding to the public health issue there, which came in very handy, who would've thought 17 years later.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
And then the industry took a downturn and several of the companies outsourced or downsized their medical departments. And I had already been looking because as they went through the bankruptcy, things were beginning to show that they had to make some economies. So I ended up talking to the FAA and they had actually talked to me before about taking a position, but I had obligations at Delta, I felt like I needed to continue. And they kept their eye on me and I kept my eye on them and come to find out, that my predecessor in Southern Region, retired and I applied for the job and was lucky enough to be selected. So I stayed in the Air Force Reserves and finished the career there and here I am 14 years later, still with the FAA.

Liz Cory:
I'm sure you've been asked this many times, but what advice do you have for women or young girls who are looking at you and looking at the skies and thinking, "Wow, could I really do this?" What advice do you have for someone who would want to follow in your footsteps?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Stay in school, first and foremost. Set your goal and figure it out, figure out what you need to do to get there. And if you want to be a doctor, that means you got to pay attention to your grades. You want to go into an aviation career, you might want to look at one of the STEM programs and then start applying. Don't get in trouble with the law, there's all kinds of advice I could give. But the big one is, make sure that you are preparing yourself with the skill set you need, to proceed with what you're doing.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Now, one of the bigger concerns I have right now, even about my own profession and certainly about several of the very technical positions within the FAA is, who's going to follow us and are they going to be ready to follow us? So I'm a big proponent of STEM and supporting STEM because I think we wait too late in some of the programs that are out there. Because if we don't get the sixth grader interested in becoming an air traffic controller, becoming a pilot, becoming a doctor, becoming an engineer, so that they begin to plan their academic career. So they have the tools when they graduate from either high school or college or a tech school, whatever they're doing, they're not going to compete effectively. So it really is an investment in our future, to be spending time with young women and young men, at a very early stage of their adolescents.

Liz Cory:
And I know that's something you're active with, certainly with your own sons, with the Boy Scouts. It sounds like scouting, you talk about being prepared. I always think of scouting when I think of being prepared, and of course, young girls too, can come up through Scouting?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Yes, they can now. That's a huge thing. As a young person myself, I was always so jealous of my brother who was doing all these cool things and hiking in the mountains and building contained fires, one hopes and taking canoe trips out in the wilds. But with the expansion to girls, Eagle Scout means something in many industries and in the government and in the military because of the training they have to have, the exposure they have to have, the they've done their own Eagle project. So they've got program management under their belt.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
They've had to go through a whole series of boards of review for their various ranks, with adults that they may not know well, asking them questions. So they're more poised, they're more prepared and they're still dedicated to service, most of them, because that's one of the tenants of scouting, servant leadership. I think it raises people to be good citizens, to supplement what they learn at home.

Liz Cory:
You bring to mind, one more question and that is, when you talk about being integrated, how important is it to have women in roles of leadership in organizations?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
So there's power in diversity and I don't just mean diversity by gender and skin tone and religious persuasion, but diversity in thought. People think differently and we need to embrace in our safety culture and dare I say, just culture, what people think and the way they perceive things, because there's power in that, to find innovative solutions. I've been very fortunate in my career, I've been given opportunities. And we need to keep doing that, so that we get the widest possible population to draw upon.

Liz Cory:
Well, thank you, Dr. Northrup. I think this has just been such a delight. Such an honor to visit with you and such an honor to get your thoughts, especially during Women's History Month. Thank you.

Announcer:
The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you liked today's episode, we invite you to subscribe and leave us a review. You can also find the FAA on social media. We're @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube and at FAA on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Oh, and for links to the show notes and more, head to faa.gov/podcasts. Thanks for listening.