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Stanford Report, February 19, 2003

High-flying fellow divides his time between stem cell research and guard duties as a flight surgeon


The life of Daniel Kraft, MD, moves from one extreme to another. As a fellow in hematology/oncology and bone marrow transplantation, he conducts stem cell and immunotherapy research in the lab of Irv Weissman, MD, enjoying the quiet solitude of work at the bench.

Kraft’s other life, however, is far from quiet: sitting in the back seat of a fighter jet, roaring through the sky at speeds up to 900 miles an hour.

Daniel Kraft, shown with an F-16 used to patrol California’s airspace, is both a stem cell and immunology researcher at Stanford and a California Air National Guard flight surgeon. PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIEL KRAFT

Kraft serves as a flight surgeon with the California Air National Guard based in Fresno, home to the 144th Fighter Wing. "I wanted to be a fighter pilot since I was a kid," said Kraft. "I didn’t have 20/20 vision starting out, so this is the only other way to get into the fighter cockpit."

The fighter wing’s mission is to provide F-16 air defense protection for California from the Mexican border to Ukiah.

Kraft, whose rank is captain, is among several physicians who spend one weekend a month with the squadron. They provide health care and monitor safety for squadron pilots and other personnel. "This is a unique opportunity to combine my passions: medicine and flying," he said.

Kraft’s love of flying dates back to 1972 when, as a 4-year-old, his parents took him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the Apollo 17 liftoff. Years later while on a clerkship at the Johnson Space Center, Kraft met Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that Kraft’s tactical "call sign," assigned by his squadron pilots, is "Space," making him "Space Kraft."

"From a very young age, I have always been an enthusiast of planes and space," said Kraft. "During college, I had a chance to combine my interest in biology and aerospace with a summer at the Kennedy Space Center. During medical school at Stanford, I managed to work at NASA Ames on a small research project, as well as work with a Stanford engineering class designing manned space flight missions to Mars. I’ve maintained an interest in aerospace medicine and I’ve been a pilot since my freshman year at Brown."

As part of his flight surgeon training, Kraft has learned about aerospace physiology, biological and chemical warfare, aircraft systems and air-to-air combat. Best of all, he has to fly with his squadron to learn the stresses and on-the-job reality of pilots who fly high-performance combat aircraft.

"Pilots are under a lot of physical stress especially when jets merge and get into a dogfight mode," said Kraft. "There’s yanking and banking, twisting your head around while pulling a lot of Gs, sometimes for prolonged periods of time. We wear G-suits and positive-pressure breathing regulators that help maintain blood flow to your brain, but it’s really exhausting. My role is to hang on in the back seat during combat training missions, fly the jet when they let me and observe all this."

Kraft initially joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard during his residency at Harvard because he "thought it would be a lot of fun," but he also discovered it was a growth experience. "I’ve seen a whole other aspect and way of life, and travel, and work with people from diverse backgrounds.

Kraft’s travels with the Guard have taken him to the Middle East when he was deployed two years ago in Saudi Arabia to assist with no-fly missions over southern Iraq. "It was a real eye opener to see how much work and personnel and how much separation from loved ones were involved in this mission which has been going on for more than 10 years."

If the United States goes to war with Iraq, it is unlikely Kraft’s Fresno squadron would be deployed overseas immediately since its primary mission is homeland defense.

Kraft noted, however, "It’s possible we could be deployed to backfill spots in the United States for physicians sent overseas — or be sent to provide medical support at airbases overseas."

A frequent traveler to Cuba is honored for surgical work and an award-winning film (5/29/02)

Gynecology team returns after performing life-changing procedures in Eritrea (10/30/02)