In Memoriam: Dr Charles Berry, MD

This is not a baseball story.

If you’ve watched the movie “Apollo 13,” then you know who Dr Charles Berry was though.  He was the doctor who said Ken Mattingly couldn’t go to space after having been exposed to measles and thus needing to be in quarantine, not maybe on the moon potentially delirious with a high fever.  The mission commander, Jim Lovell, famously protested to no avail…Mattingly was grounded.  He didn’t get sick, and was the instrumental in devising the plans that got the astronauts who did fly home again after an oxygen tank exploded.  Dr Berry was portrayed in my favorite scene in the movie:

and this is flight surgeon horseshit, Deke!

Dr Berry liked that scene, too.  In fact, he played it often when he gave talks at medical conferences.  He was a flight surgeon for 68 years…for the USAF starting in the Korean War, then NASA in its earliest days (indeed, he was a big part of selecting the astronauts in the 1960’s), and later in private practice.  I was an Air Force flight surgeon for 22 years myself.  He’s a hero in our field, and I feel privileged to have met him a number of times.

Today, as I’ve done before, while re-watching the movie, I looked him up online…and found out he passed away at age 96.  It was peaceful and in his sleep at home.  It’s a good age and a good way to go, I suppose, but I’m still sad today.

The featured image is Dr Berry doing a check up on Jim Lovell.

(One thing Dr Berry did not like about the movie was it’s portrayal of him smoking.  He was never a smoker.)

11 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Dr Charles Berry, MD

  1. We never want to believe our medical experts, do we? Lovell’s tirade against Berry summons up Images of those crowds of goobers and mouth breathers belching uninformed platitudes about “constitutional rights” on the steps of the Michigan statehouse. The Manchurian Candidate and his swill of sycophants at work.

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    • I don’t want to be hard on Jim Lovell here. You see, flight surgeons like Dr Berry and myself, actually love the pilots. Part of why we are amused/enjoy that but from Apollo 13 is because it’s real.

      For a pilot, being a pilot is part of his/her self-identity, much more so than most folk internalize their occupation as part of their identity. Pilots are people who went to an air show or something as kids, saw those jets roaring overhead, said “oooohhhhh!”…and never got over it. To take away a mission that is the culmination of everything the person is, well it’s hard. Being that passionately committed to what they do is actually a good thing.

      There is an interesting dynamic between flight docs and pilots is interesting. The flight surgeon motto is “volante subvenimus” (we serve the flyer). The flight surgeon’s job is to do everything possible to keep/make the flyers healthy and safe to fly. However, that also means sometimes the flight surgeon has to make the call that the pilot is not safe to fly. Every flyer knows this and views the flight surgeon with some level of trepidation. The flight surgeon has to work to earn trust, but that kernel of trepidation is always there.

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      • I hear ya about fighter pilots… I worked with them for almost 20 years of my Air Force career. As the old joke goes… How can you tell which guy in the room is a fighter pilot? Answer: You don’t have to figure it out… he’ll tell you.

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        • “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? You’re lookin’ at ‘im”. — that might be a great line but it’s a truthful one lol

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        • Yep, every pilot is convinced he’s the best ever, but sometimes they can get a bit humbled. Here is my favourite (and true) story about my interactions with young pilots:

          I was manning the maintenance desk one afternoon when four of our F-18’s returned from a “2v2 air-to-air” mission, essentially dogfighting training with two jets against the other two — one newbie pilot and one senior pilot on each side. One of the young pilots – who always acted like he was God’s gift to aviation -came stomping into the maintenance room with a face like a thundercloud and demanded a “stack of defect forms because that airplane is a piece of shit!” Before my filter could engage, I blurted out “Got your ass kicked, huh?”. He didn’t reply, just glared at me, but his wingman — who was also the Squadron commander — stood behind him, and nodded emphatically at me with a big shit-eatin’ grin on his face. Needless to say, every “defect” he wrote up was tested out as “no fault found”.

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  2. I love movies about the space program – I mean, one of my favorite movies of all time is The Right Stuff – so of course Apollo 13 is a favorite. It sucks when your heroes pass away. And as one of my heroes once said, “Godspeed.”

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