Monday, November 14, 2011

Driver's License = Medical Certificate?

One nice thing about AOPA's new, PR-oriented management is that it's oh so easy to discern their agenda. DVD-of-the-month club, life insurance, medical certification assistance, legal assistance, credit cards, and numerous other "member benefits" are being hawked to each and every AOPA member on a regular basis. AOPA seems thirsty for money. Quoting John Ciardi: "May you stay solvent by whatever means are available to you."

Issues that AOPA reports repeatedly in their newsletters and magazines have obviously been designated as their top priorities. These priorities would seem to include bringing back BARR (Block Aircraft Registration Requests) so no one will know how business jets are being used, just saying "no" to user fees, just saying "yes" to NextGen and ADS-B, and now advocating the elimination of the 3rd class medical certificate.

The proposal at hand seems to be "If you hold a driver's license, that's good enough to be PIC and you don't need a 3rd class medical." One would assume the requirements for 1st and 2nd class medical certificates would not change and would still be required for commercial and airline transport pilots. It seems that with an appropriate pilot's certificate and driver's license as a medical, this proposal would allow someone to fly not just the light-sport/flying-lawn-furniture sorts of aircraft, but presumably aircraft with a maximum gross takeoff weight as high as 12,499 pounds. This sounds ridiculous just typing the words.

The criteria for a third class medical certificate are remarkably liberal, giving rise to the old joke: "If you can see lightning and hear thunder, you can get a medical certificate." Now if you have a medical condition that could unexpectedly render you unconscious or otherwise impair you, that's another story. Pilots with diabetes, heart conditions, high blood pressure, cognitive impairments all come under scrutiny. As well they should, but the FAA medical certification division has still done a pretty good job of allowing for pilots with special circumstances to obtain a medical certificate. For example ...

Another complaint is that getting a medical certificate is a hassle. Think about that: If you're under 40 years of age, your 3rd class medical certificate is good for five years (60 calendar months). If you're over 40, it's still good for 2 years (24 calendar months). A trip to the AME every two or five years is hardship? Give me a break! Now if you have a special medical condition, you will have to jump through hoops, provide test results, and you often have to wait for approval. That's a hassle with which I am all too familiar.

Long time readers of this blog know that in 2008 my 2nd class medical certificate was revoked for a year after I experienced a disqualifying medical episode. The FAA's revocation was explicit and, it seemed to me, a bit rude. After all, I had voluntarily reported my situation, I had done the right thing, I was following the rules. The thing is, many pilots don't like to follow the regs and that likely explains the FAA's serious tone.

Several pilots emailed me or commented on by blog suggesting I was foolish for telling the FAA. Some suggested I should have just kept it to myself rather than blog about the experience. Another told me I should have just monitored my own condition, made my own decisions about my fitness for flight, that I should have been the judge, stuff in that vein. My ability to earn an income was significantly hampered until the FAA granted a special issuance 2nd class medical certificate. Based on this experience, some might think that I'd be strongly in favor of what AOPA is advocating. In point of fact, I'm not.

Medical certification is an important part of aviation safety even if many pilots choose to keep their medical problems to themselves rather than risk being grounded. Some might say the FAA 3rd class medical exam is perfunctory and ineffective, but the applicant must fill out a medical history questionnaire. Falsifying or misrepresenting that medical history is serious business. The safeguards against drivers with medical problems is potentially even more problematic. In California, Health and Safety Code Section 103900 requires the treating physician to report a driver's health problems. If a driver chooses not to be treated or doesn't reveal a problem to their physician, it would seem that no one would be the wiser. And drivers are not required to undergo regular physical exams.

In light of AOPA's support of the NextGen initiative to increase aviation safety and utility, it's odd they would, at the same time, be arguing to implement what could very well become a sort of "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy. AOPA's proposal would have us flying in a world where pilots who have potentially serious medical problems could act as PIC without a medical history or regular check-ups and status reports. The importance of addressing and dealing with medical issues would be further minimized and the status quo of sweeping things under the rug would be maintained. If AOPA's constant clamoring for a driver's license medical certificate isn't about safety, perhaps it's about more potential AOPA members. More members, more money.

This brings me to the late Doug Johnson, Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.), whom I met while teaching at the Alameda Aero Club. Doug founded the flying club and he continued to be its driving force after the Alameda NAS was closed and the club moved to Oakland. Doug was plainspoken and when ladies weren't present, Doug could curse a blue streak. And all of this was put forth in an Arkansas drawl that'd make you think you were standing in front of a ribald version of Foghorn Leghorn. Doug had been a B17 captain during WWII and survived his share of bombing missions. He had plenty of opinions on most any topic you could come up with. In short, Doug was larger that life.

Doug was always hanging around the airport, but I never saw him go flying. I asked him why and he explained that one day, driving to the airport, he'd woken up, shaken but uninjured, with his car in a ditch. After a slew of medical tests with no conclusive results, Doug made his choice. "Boywah" he'd said, "That day forward, I couldn't go flyin' without 'nother pilot on board. What if it happened again, with ma wife onboard? What if an innocent person on the ground got killed 'cause of me?" The doctors said it was okay for Doug to drive, and drive he did, but I suspect if Doug were alive today and he heard about AOPA's proposal, he'd be all over them like white on rice.

If you've lost your medical certificate, if you're unable to fly under sport pilot rules, I understand that being grounded sucks. I hated it the first time it happened to me and I know that at some point (hopefully in the distant future) I may very well be grounded again. All pilots need to remember that each one of us may have to give up being PIC. It may not be popular to say, but a time will come when our love of flying must be overshadowed by the safety of those around us and the loved ones who fly with us.


Ron said...

The problem with FAA medical certificates is that they don't work as designed because people are... well, people.

The rules are followed properly by those who would show adequate judgement in grounding themselves anyway. You cited one example in Doug Johnson.

On the other hand, I'm sure there are plenty of people out there with a medical certificate in their wallet who, if they were honest in reporting each doctor's visit and checking off each and every box on the medical certificate application form, would find themselves grounded.

There are also those who are healthy and qualified but cannot get a medical certificate anyway. A fellow CFI falls into that category. She had a brain tumor, it was successfully removed, no side effects, and she has undergone every test they FAA wants. Four years later, still waiting to get her cert back. The Feds admit she meets all the requirements, but still won't give her a medical certificate.

With abuse like that, it's no wonder the natives are restless. For the FAA, it's about CYA, but for many of us it's about putting food on the table and keeping the lights on.

John Ewing said...


Most pilots don't learn the nitty-gritty details about medical certification until they have a health problem that is disqualifying. When you don't meet the medical certification standards because of health problem, your application is denied. It's analogous to busting a check ride because you didn't fly to the required PTS tolerances.

If you bust a check ride, you can get additional training and a new endorsement and try again. When someone doesn't meet the relevant medical certification standards found in 14 CFR 67, such as your friend who had brain surgery or me because of my TGA event, they can apply for and be granted a waiver from the regulations and given a special issuance medical certificate under 14 CFR 67.401.

Special issuance medical certificates are done at the discretion of a federal air surgeon after reviewing the application and all the supporting documentation. This requires time and judgement. Delays in this review process are, to my mind, more a reflection of staffing and funding that a "CYA" attitude.

The argument "people are people" is a classic example of begging the question. In point of fact, the medical certification process works for the majority of pilots and air traffic controllers. There are most certainly people who falsify their medical history in order to obtain a medical certificate, just as I'm sure there are pilots out there who falsify their logbooks. These folks might nonetheless be very talented people who are quite capable of expertly piloting an aircraft, they just want to obtain a certificate or rating without the rules applying to them.

Following the "people are people" logic, one could claim we should also relax or abandon pilot certification standards since widespread cheating could indicate the standards don't work or simply because "the natives are restless."

We may not like the standards for medical certification. We may feel fine and look fine to others. We may love flying so much that we're willing to lie and cheat. We may be unwilling to change careers because without a medical certificate we can no longer earn a living as a pilot or instructor. And we may not care that lying and falsifying our medical history puts other people at risk.

That sounds like "The needs of the few outweight the needs of the many" - the principle of utility turned on it's head.


Jaybird said...

Already love your blog from the word go, firstly let me say I am from South Africa and find the topics on your blog very enlightening and educational.

On the topic at hand I will go on to agree with your case and point, yes as Ron said people are people, and in essence we make the decision to ground ourselves based on our knowledge of our medical condition.

Here I was just starting off my PPL and only to find out that I was and still am predisposed to high cholesterol, it is almost like your world shatters around you to know the one thing you love doing might be in jeopardy. But like all medical exams it was picked up, and it was put under control with a proper diet adjustment. How on earth would holding a drivers license enable me to find that out. Maybe when I am sitting in the car, halfway up a tree, busy dying of a stroke, Maybe that would make that difference.

Similar incident here in South Africa, pilot flying along one day had an aneurysm managed to land the plane but later died due to extensive brain damaged and yes granted it is difficult to pick up during a medical. Just an example of how something like a constant pain in the chest should have been picked up to prevent a possible heart attack.

Also if we as Pilot's regard our class 1 & 2 medicals as putting food on the table, should we not have the capability and the responsibility to take out insurance against that at the same time ???

Jason Victor -