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Charles Richard Harper

April 19, 1932 ~ January 19, 2018 (age 85)


  A Life Well Lived. Charles Richard Harper, whose long career in aviation medicine encompassed starting a jungle survival school for the United States Navy in the Philippines, serving as United Airlines’ medical director and assessing pilots for Federal Aviation Administration medical flight certification through his private practice, died on January 19, 2018. He was 85. The cause was heart failure. An innovative thinker and advocate of preventive medicine and of a whole-person approach to health care, Harper’s medical career focused on more than just an examination of the physical symptoms of illness. As early as the 1960s and 1970s, he authored papers and gave lectures on the need for personality testing and psychiatric screening of pilots for entities including the International Air Transport Association and the International Congress of Aviation and Space Medicine. A gifted story teller with a sly wit, Harper was known for these entertaining lectures on aviation medicine. Pilots frequently stopped Harper and his wife at the airport to say how much they had enjoyed his presentations. As vice president of medical services for United Airlines in Elk Grove, Ill., Harper implemented a full-scale employee assistance program which significantly reduced sick leave, and initiated psychiatric screening of pilots and others in safety-sensitive positions. Later, as the medical director for General Dynamics Land Services Division in Troy, Mich., he developed preventive health and employee assistance programs. While vice president of medical services for Harvey Watt & Company in Atlanta, an airline pilot disability claims adjustment firm, he greatly expanded its rehabilitation program, yielding earlier medical re-certification for pilots. He founded his private practice, Aeromedical, Inc., in Atlanta in 1994, serving as a FAA aviation medical examiner for commercial pilots. In addition to assisting pilots with their FAA medical certifications, he provided counsel on diet, exercise, vitamins, and prevention. Harper considered his work at Aeromedical one of his greatest professional accomplishments, as over the course of his 24-year private practice, he helped thousands of pilots maintain or recover their aviation careers. Another achievement he valued dates to the mid-1960s. As he recalled it, a rash of jetliner crashes related to severe turbulence prompted Congress to contemplate grounding all commercial jets until effective safety procedures could be developed. In his role as medical director for United Airlines in Denver, Harper worked with the airlines’ head of operations, the FAA, and the Navy to determine best practices for flying in or near severe turbulence. This work was crucial in helping pilots avoid turbulence-related accidents and in keeping commercial jetliners flying without interruption. Always eager for adventure, Harper began his medical career as a flight surgeon in the United States Navy, after attending the United States Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Fla., where he earned his pilot’s license. In the late 1950s, he was posted to the Naval installation at Cubi Point/Subic Bay in the Philippines. While there, Harper started a school for the airbase to teach pilots, crew and corpsmen how to survive in the dense tropical jungles. He spent days  with the indigenous tribes learning to find clean water and edible plants, including – famously, among those he taught – a tuber which was safe to eat if submerged in a running stream for three days, but fatal to consume otherwise. He also volunteered at a clinic run by Lutheran missionaries, handling sick call for the Northern Filipino mountain people, performing minor surgeries and even treating two cases of leprosy. Through the mission, Harper also spent time with a tribe of headhunters, and video footage from the trip shows him dancing with them. He also traveled to Vietnam to help search for survivors of a plane crash on the Ho Chi Minh trail, in an area so remote his group had to build fires at night to keep the tigers at bay. This experience served as an entry to his later work for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, where, as chief of its accident investigation section, he traveled widely to examine the human and medical causes of plane crashes. This foray into exotic locales took him far from his early life in the American West and Midwest. Harper was born at home during the height of the Depression, in the sawmill town of Wright City, Okla. His father, James, was a saw filer, sharpening the teeth of the huge circular blades used to slice logs into lumber. His mother, Mary, was a baker who also raised foster children. The couple had five biological children, of which Harper was the youngest. The family moved to Phoenix when Harper was about two years old, and his mother died when he was six. After his mother’s death, Harper’s childhood was peripatetic, as he moved from Phoenix to the Toledo, Ohio, area to California, living with various family members. One of his fondest memories was sleeping on the roof of his sister’s garage on sweltering Phoenix nights, looking up at the stars in the clear Arizona sky and listening to World War II news and programs such as the Green Lantern on a little radio with a wire antenna. He also fondly recalled his time at a Boy Scout camp in the South Mountains near Phoenix. After high school, Harper moved to Ohio to work in his brother’s lockwasher factory and, in 1953, to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from the University of Toledo. He received his medical degree from Ohio State University College of Medicine in 1957. Shortly before his senior year in medical school, his friend and roommate Hyman Meyer Stockfish called him to the front porch of one of the dormitories to meet a young nursing student, Judith Neville.  Along with another friend, the group went for coffee at the Tom Thumb diner. That introduction led to a date at the movies, and, eventually, to a wedding ceremony at the First Congregational Church in Painesville, Ohio. Harper and Neville were married in 1958, and together built a family. Harper is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Judith; two sons, Charles Harper and Mark Harper; daughters-in-law Peggy Harper and Janet Conley; grandchildren Kelsey Harper Wang  and her husband,  Jeffrey Wang; Allison Harper, Christopher Harper, Sarah Harper, David Harper, and Lexie Harper. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Wounded Warrior Project:, phone 1-877-832-6997 or Metro Atlanta Recovery Residence:, phone 1-800-732-5430.  Condolences may be sent by visiting A reception will be held Saturday, February 10, 2018 after the service at St. Benedicts Catholic Church. The family will receive friends Saturday from 12:00 p.m. until 1:00 p.m. with a memorial service at 1:00 p.m. at Bill Head Funeral Homes & Crematory Duluth Chapel (770)476-2535.

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