Stranded In The Southland

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fun With Aviation Medicals

Now, depending on who you ask, the medical requirements for learning to fly are either completely trivial (Do you have a driver's license? Are you generally in good health?) or very tough (involving possibly months of back and forth with the FAA). Don't believe the folks who claim it is trivial -- if you have diabetes or asthma or (in my case) migraines, you could be in for a rough ride.

The FAA is obviously looking for debilitating conditions that could render you suddenly unable to control an aircraft. That makes a certain amount of sense, although apparently only 1% or 2% of aviation accidents are linked to any sort of medical issue that is screened for by the FAA.

I was lucky. I found (completely by accident) a pretty cool Senior Aviation Medical Examiner, who helped me get this all sorted out. I had to get a very in-depth letter from my regular doctor about my symptoms (the AME helped me collaborate with my doctor to get the appropriate level of detail), and my AME had to chat with the folks at FAA headquarters.

It all turned out okay for me, and I'm good to fly, but it took two visits to the AME, a visit to my doctor, and some serious sweating. Plus, I'm going to have to get another note from my doctor next year to continue to fly, when certificates are usually good for two years for us old guys and three years for those under 40. Apparently only about 1% of applicants have to go through this, which suggests to me that either lots of folks have been scared away, or that lots of folks are fibbing to the FAA about their health.

The take-away advice -- get your medical sorted out before you start to fly! How nasty would it have been to have had to give up flying after taking a whole bunch of lessons!? The AOPA has a great set of web pages that you should check out before going to talk to an AME, so that you know exactly how fussy the FAA is about any health problems you've had or medications you are using.

And, in the end, you should realize that there are options available if you can't get the medical -- you can fly gliders, or you can look into the new Sport Pilot program, which has restrictions on the size of aircraft you can fly and where you can fly it, but will at least get you up in the air.