Monday, September 28, 2009

It's Official

In Thursday's mail, I found a letter from the FAA containing a special issuance 3rd class medical certificate. So as of Thursday, it was once again legal for me to be pilot-in-command. Then in Saturday's mail, I found another letter from the FAA containing a 2nd class medical certificate, which superseded the previous letter and medical certificate. So why did the FAA send me two medical certificates?

The first package of material that I sent to the FAA contained a neurologist's report on my latest exam. The latest exam was described as "unremarkable" and noted that subsequent TGA episodes were unlikely. My understanding was that before the FAA could rule on this report, they would need to also have my application for a new medical certificate (deferred to them by my local AME).

Turns out the FAA, based on my doctor's report, decided to give me a special issuance 3rd class medical that would be good until October 31st of this year. That would have been the same expiration date of my old medical that was revoked last December. After they sent that letter, they must have received the application for a 2nd class medical that my AME referred to them. So the FAA approved a special issuance 2nd class medical, in short order, and sent it out with another letter.

Pilots who are working to get approval for a medical certificate application that has been referred to Oklahoma City are usually told to expect a three to six week turnaround. It appears my case was reviewed in a matter of days, possibly a matter of hours for all I know. At any rate, it was quick. I think part of this credit goes to the doctors and staff at Virtual Flight Surgeons, who I had chosen to represent my case. Credit is also due to my local AME for seeing me on short notice and promptly getting the paperwork to the FAA. I've been known to be critical of the FAA, so let the record show that I'm very grateful to all involved for the expeditious handling of my case.

To Be or Not To Be
For the last 11 months, being without a medical certificate, I could act as pilot in command, but I couldn't be pilot in command. The legal distinction is a bit tricky, but here is how I understand it. One can act as PIC of an aircraft if one holds a pilot's certificate for the category and class of aircraft in question. Acting as PIC means you can be the sole manipulator of the controls, but it doesn't necessarily mean you can fulfill the role of a required crew member. To be PIC (and to have legal responsibility for the aircraft and the operation), you must also possess a valid medical certificate for the type of operation and meet all the other currency requirements.

So without a valid medical certificate, I was unable to act as a safety pilot for a pilot wearing a view limiting device (used to simulate instrument conditions). Since I tended do a lot of instrument instruction, that took a big bite out of my income. Sometimes these legal distinctions sound a bit like a Marx Brothers routine, but that's the regulatory world that we pilots live and fly in. So as my wife has been known to say to me: "Get used to it!"

Back in the Saddle

My first flight as PIC occurred tonight, solo, and mostly at night. A pilot I used to fly with regularly had graciously offered me the use of his twin Grumman for my first flight as PIC in nearly a year. My mission was to do some maneuvers and return 60 minutes after sunset so I could do three stop-and-go landings and reset my multi-engine currency.

I didn't expect to feel apprehensive before this flight, but that's exactly how I felt. After a few minutes aloft, I settled into the usual rhythm and enjoyed a beautiful sunset while I flew a selection of commercial multi-engine maneuvers. In the end, it felt great to be PIC again and I had a renewed appreciation of what it means to be a pilot.

Morality Aside
More than one person has asked me if I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, would I tell the FAA about my medical problem. My answer is an unequivocal "Yes!" Let me be clear that I don't have a halo over my head, just because I did what the regulations required me to do. As I said right after my TGA event, I have always advocated for general aviation safety and telling the FAA about my problem was the obvious, correct choice. Sure the results of doing the right thing were uncomfortable, troubling, inconvenient, and expensive but the thing is, I knew it was the right thing to do. In fact, I think that each of us usually knows what the morally and ethically correct course of action is, even if society tells us that lying is okay.

Let's face it, we are constantly being told (directly and indirectly) that lying is okay, especially when it is expedient, offers us a personal advantage, and there's a good chance we won't get caught. Here's an interesting quote from an article I was referred to recently.
Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.
Hannah Arendt

Part of the problem is the widespread acceptance of naive realism, which basically says "Hey, I'm being reasonable. It's the FAA (or substitute your favorite organization) who is being unreasonable." After all, who knows better than each of us what is correct? Indeed!

The truth is that I'm not an expert in neurology. I could always claim to be an expert and to know more than I know, but is it really unreasonable to be told to wait a year without a recurrence of symptoms before being granted a medical certificate? I don't think so.


That stands for Another Fine Growth Opportunity, though there is a more ribald version. So what did I learn and how did I grow? Well, actually, I shrank. Having lots of time off allowed me to exercise and concentrate on my diet. That resulted in a loss of more than 20 pounds and three inches off my waistline.

After my TGA incident, my primary care doctor looked at my lipid blood panel and became concerned with my cholesterol, which was on the high side of normal. The suggestion was that I begin statin therapy, but I was adamant that the first thing to try was a change in diet and exercise due to studies that have linked statin use to cognitive impairment. 11 months later, a new lipid panel showed nearly a 40 point drop in my total cholesterol and a healthy readjustment to my HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels.

A Matter of Time
Jim, also known as Doctor ATP, learned about my predicament and wrote me to tell me about the first time he lost his medical certificate. By describing his trials and tribulations, and he's had a bunch, Jim gave me a new perspective on just how precious a gift it is to be a pilot. It's a tremendous privilege to fly an aircraft and though you might not want to hear this, it's only a matter of time before each of us reaches a tipping point. We can deny facts and lie to ourselves, or we can embrace our situation, come to grips with our mortality, and develop a daily appreciation of what we have before we lose it.

Jim continues to be an inspiration as he once again is facing medical problems and the thorny issue of mortality in a head-on fashion. I recommend you go read about Jim's situation and his approach to problems that most of us can't even imagine. And while you're there, why not leave him a few words of encouragement?


Ron said...

Congratulations! I've read that most pilots will have a medical certification issue at some point in their careers. Hopefully this was yours, and the sailing will be smooth from here on out!

Regarding the PIC thing, I've always heard it referred to as "logging PIC" and "acting PIC". Without the medical, you could LOG pilot-in-command time whenever you were the sole manipulator of the controls of an aircraft for which you held the appropriate category, class, and type (if req'd) rating. But you could never ACT as pilot-in-command.

This description has always made sense to me, because you can have multiple people *logging* PIC time (example: instructor and instrument student), but only one person can ever be the *acting* PIC of an aircraft. That's the guy who's legally responsible for the flight, and the one who needs the medical certificate.

Anyway, congratulations again! It's inspiring to see you do something good for your health during the non-PIC period. I too would reject the medicine until I had tried diet & exercise.


Dave Starr said...

Congratulations, John ... on regaining the medical of course, but most importantly on doing the right thing and seeing it through.

To those wondering is 'doing the right thing" is worth it, let me point out something I have learned through a hobby of mine. I read and study aircraft accident reports, and I collect interesting ones, all the way back to one the US Army conducted back in 1908.

This may seem a bit macabre, and perhaps to some even venturing into terminal boredom. Perhaps that is so.

But one thing stands out across the years, across the numbers of different nationalities involved, across the broad spectrum of pilot skills and qualifications and the many different ways an aircraft can 'bite you'.

An overwhelming number of these crashes have a causal factor, a contributing factor or at the very least a troubling side note that involves an integrity issue. There are, of course, even major accidents with intentional undisclosed medical issues as a probable cause, but even in thousands of accidents where aircrew health was never an issue, the number of times the pilot knew exactly what s/he needed to do and failed to do so is astounding.

One argument might be, "when you're dead, you're dead, so who will know"?

But the flip side of that argument is, why even give the lawyers and nerds of the world the satisfaction of reading about you (not to mention your children) ... do the right thing and stay alive, as well as morally straight.

Worth a thought at least, me thinks

Steve said...

John - It's wonderful to hear you have your medical back and can be PIC again. Thanks for sharing and congrats!