The petition by EAA and AOPA to allow required medical education to replace the third-class medical for recreational flying is the first proposal that I think actually can improve safety and be approved by the FAA.
The petition asks the FAA to allow pilots to fly fixed-gear single-engine airplanes of 180 hp or less under daylight VFR using a driver’s license as an alternative to the FAA third-class medical. The airplane could have four seats, but pilots opting for the driver’s license option would be restricted to carrying a single passenger.
This type of petition has been made many times by various groups and even individuals in the past with no success. What’s different this time is that pilots using the driver’s license would be required to complete an online aeromedical awareness training course, including a test to be sure they correctly and completely absorbed the information.
Previous petitions for relief from the third-class medical have pleaded that the medical certification process does no good and adds nothing to safety. But that is not exactly true. The airman’s medical certification system as it exists now has many problems, but the fact is pilots need to be aware of how a variety of health issues can affect their flying safety. It is that information and education on how health problems can impact flying safety that is missing from the present medical certification process.
Under the present system we pilots tell the aviation medical examiner (AME) about our health and medical visits and procedures over the past few years. The AME then compares that information to what the FAA allows and a medical certificate is issued, or not. The certification system is neither predictive nor preventative. If we don’t tell the AME honestly about our health there is very little in the exam that could uncover a problem. And during the two years – or longer for younger pilots – the medical certificate is valid each and every one of us pilots determines before each flight if our health that day is up to par.
So we self-certify for 729 days that we are fit to fly, and then on that 730th day we ask the AME if we are. How much better and safer a system we can have if we pilots are trained in what medical issues to watch out for, and how to deal with them, and that’s what the petition proposes.
For example, I know that flying with a cold, or after taking some cold remedies, can compromise safety. But do I know exactly why that may be true, and which symptoms and medications to watch out for? No. But I would learn that under the required training.
There is an entire range of medical and health issues that affect our daily activities, and through the training we can learn how those issues may also have specific flying effects, if any. The pilot choosing to fly recreationally with a driver’s license if the petition is approved will have much more useful information about how health can affect safety than the pilot who simply goes through the motions to get an FAA medical certificate.
The bottom line is that we can’t just say the FAA medical certification system doesn’t work so let’s throw it out. What we must provide is an alternative that will work better, and that’s what the petition does.
I’ve heard from many pilots who want to see the required medical certificate for all personal flying under FAR 91 in any propeller airplane go away, but at this point that is not realistic. To make substantial changes in long-standing rules the FAA needs data to show that the new rule is better and safer than the one it replaces.
We have collected at least six years worth of data in LSA flying where pilots can use a driver’s license instead of an FAA medical and there has not been a single medical incapacitation-caused accident. It’s a good start. And the recreational flying petition, if it is approved, will collect safety data much more quickly because so many more airplanes and pilots qualify under the petition.
More than half of all piston singles have engines with 180 hp or less, and though I don’t have hard numbers, I believe the majority of homebuilt airplanes also would qualify with fixed gear and the 180-hp or less engine. That means that as soon as the petition is approved 60,000 or more airplanes will be instantly available to be flown by pilots with a driver’s license.
Bottom line, this is a petition to make the pilot medical certification system more effective and safer, not a petition to eliminate all medical standards. If there is one thing we have learned in aviation over the decades, it is that it is always safer to train a pilot on what to do rather than just say, “Don’t do that.” The current medical system just says “don’t,” but the petition will teach pilots what to do about their health and flying.
The full petition will be filed with the FAA early next year when details of the medical training course have been established. After the petition is in the system there will be a comment period and that’s when we need to make our thoughtful and constructive comments to the FAA. We at EAA will keep you posted on progress of the petition, and when and how to make your comments.