Flying fighter jets with a heart condition: David’s story
David Morgan became the first fighter pilot with a hole in the heart. He tells Lucy Trevallion how he refused to let his heart problem stop his dreams coming true.
From the age of seven, David Morgan knew he wanted to be a pilot. “My father took me to an air show and sat me in a Spitfire, which is what he used to fly, and I knew this was the career I wanted,” he says.
But David, now 70, didn’t know that he’d been born with a heart condition. This hidden issue would soon throw up obstacles as he worked to reach his goal.
Diagnosis and heart surgery
In 1964, aged 16, David applied for a scholarship to join the Navy. The final medical tests revealed a heart murmur (an extra or unusual sound in your heartbeat). David thought it was probably nothing, but his doctor referred him to St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
There, David was diagnosed with an atrial septal defect (ASD). There was a hole in the membrane (septum) that separates the top two chambers of his heart, and less than half of his circulating blood was getting oxygenated.
“The doctor there obviously thought I’d been made aware of the problem,” David says. “When he saw the results he said: ‘Ah yes you’ve got a really big hole. When I got back on the train to school, a sad little teenager, thinking: ‘My life is over.’ It was a fairly traumatic period.”
The surgery went well, though he remembers feeling alone as he came out of the operating theatre. “I tried to pull the oxygen mask off my face, and was told by a very nice nurse not to do that or it could be serious. I thought: ‘Yes, that’s fair enough’,” he laughs.
He had been playing rugby at a high level, but had to stop because, due to the scar, “it hurt like hell if I got tackled”, he says.
Aged 18, David was able to join the Navy as a helicopter pilot. Two years later, he went to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). But a potential problem arose at the RAF medical.
“The doctor had a look at me and said: ‘I’m sorry old chap, you can’t fly with an operation like that in your history.’ I said: ‘Well, I’ve been flying helicopters for a couple of years with the Navy’,” David explains.
The doctor had to check with the RAF’s chief heart surgeon, who by chance had trained under the surgeon who performed David’s operation. “The RAF’s surgeon rang him up at home and asked if he remembered me. And he said: ‘Ah yes, one of my best jobs, he’s fine.’ So I became the first person who’d had this operation to join the Air Force. I was cleared to fly jet aircraft,” says David.
Another consequence of David’s surgery was very low blood pressure and a very low heart rate, because his heart had increased in size to compensate for the ASD. At the yearly RAF medicals, David was “put through the hoops”, and appeared extremely fit. “In reality, I was probably only average,” he says.
Battling to become a fighter pilot
David flew helicopters for the RAF for three years, and then relocated to Germany to do a ground tour. He was still set on flying fighter jets though, and every month, he wrote a letter to the Air Secretary’s branch. “It pointed out why I was the best possible man to retrain as a Harrier jet pilot, even though there wasn’t a way to do this at the time,” David says.
It’s completely nerve-wracking until you’ve landed and then you feel total elation
Eventually, the RAF did decide to retrain a helicopter pilot to fly Harriers and David was chosen. “My first solo flight in an aeroplane was very special,” he says. “It’s completely nerve-wracking until you’ve landed and then you feel total elation.”
He was stationed in Germany when he noticed the BHF was running a series of poster adverts with famous faces. He contacted the BHF to share his story – the first flying fighter pilot to have ASD surgery. He posted a photo of himself standing in front of a Harrier, and in 1981, starred on one of the posters (pictured below right).
Fighting in the Falklands War
Soon after, David moved back to the UK to help the Navy with a new Sea Harrier programme. On the morning of 2 April 1982, he turned on the radio and heard that Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands.
David was told he would fly in the war, and spent a month on aircraft carrier HMS Hermes designing attacks and trying weapons. “There was an apprehensive feeling on board, mixed with muted excitement as none of us had previously been to war,” he says.
The experience of being in battle left its mark on David. After seeing a pilot bombing a British landing craft, and then shooting down the pilot’s plane, he initially felt elated. “But he ejected and I saw his face as he drifted down in his parachute,” David says. “I had a huge surge of empathy. It was a fellow pilot who I’d probably have a really good drink with if I’d met him under different circumstances. The change of emotions was very traumatic; I ended up with post-traumatic stress because of it.”
David fought through the war, and was the highest scoring fighter pilot of the Falklands.
“Professionally, I was proud that when I was asked to do the job I did it very well,” he says. “The downside is you know you’ve killed people, and you have to live with that.” He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, in recognition of “gallantry during active operations against the enemy at sea.”
David was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and other medals for his bravery.
Further heart problems and retirement
David left the Navy in the early 90s, and in 1994 he became a commercial pilot for Virgin Atlantic. But in certain situations, for example if he was very tired, he experienced atrial fibrillation (AF – an abnormal heart rhythm), though it was always back to normal the next day. “As I got older, it started to occur more often and, eventually, spontaneously,” David says. “As soon as I saw the doctor, the civil aviation authorities said I couldn’t fly.”
Beta blockers helped and after eight months not flying, he was allowed to carry on. But after a few years, the AF came back and David had a transseptal ablation. This involves passing a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) through the dividing wall of the top two chambers of the heart, to destroy the tissue that’s causing the abnormal heart rhythm.
Flying has been my joy and my life since age seven... The moral of my story is: don’t give up
“I was a little concerned, but the hole from the ablation sealed up within a few weeks,” he says. “After some more tests, I was cleared to fly.”
The ablation stopped the AF completely. He retired five years ago, but David still flies, teaching aerobatics and lessons on vintage aircraft, and displaying a 1938 Tiger Moth biplane (pictured at the top of the page, with David) at air shows. He also keeps active with gardening and scuba diving.
David is enjoying life in his Dorset cottage with his wife Caro, and regularly sees his two children, who he is very proud of, Elizabeth, 42, and son Charlie, 41, as well as his four granddaughters.
“Flying has been my joy and my life since age seven,” says David. “I chose a profession that needed very high fitness levels, but achieved my ambitions. The moral of my story is: don’t give up.”