Third Class Medical and FAA ELOS

The FAA routinely issues a ruling of equivalent level of safety (ELOS) when certifying airplanes, equipment and various flight operations. An ELOS is the FAA’s finding that an aircraft or aviation operation delivers the same level of safety that the rules require even if what has been approved does not meet the letter of the law. EAA and AOPA are asking the FAA to make an ELOS finding on the requirement for pilots to have a third class medical for recreational flying.

ELOS rulings are essential because the FARs cannot anticipate every possible way safety goals can be achieved. An ELOS does not bypass the objective of the FARs, but allows for an alternate means of achieving the safety goal.

The safety objective of the third class medical certificate is to identify people with health issues that could cause them to be incapacitated while at the controls of an aircraft. As with all FARs, the objective of the third class medical standard is to try to protect the pilot and his passengers, and also to help protect those on the ground who could be injured by a crashing airplane.

I believe the objectives of the medical certification system are good and necessary. But the EAA/AOPA petition to use a driver’s license in place of a third class medical for recreational flying purposes is an ELOS. The key element of the petition that makes it an ELOS  is required aero medical health education and testing for pilots. Training pilots to identify and avoid health risks for pilots would provide the ELOS to the third class medical exam.

Under the medical certification system pilots are examined on a schedule determined by their age and the type of flying they do. Airline captains are required to carry a first class medical and must be examined as often as every six months. Commercial operations require a second class medical certificate that is good for one year. Pilots flying for their own reasons and not being paid to fly need a third class medical every two or five years depending on their age.

Between exams the rules require a pilot of any class of medical to not fly if he has a disqualifying medical condition. Great. Are we trained and tested on how to identify those conditions? No. Who’s opinion matters each day on our fitness to fly? Only our own except on that one day we go to the AME. So pilots of all levels self-certify their medical fitness every day except the one day they go to the AME for the exam.

The medical training and testing component of the EAA/AOPA petition teaches pilots the necessary information to know if a health condition puts them at risk. That would be a first in the history of the FAA and that training is clearly an ELOS to the third class medical.

The other element of the EAA/AOPA petition that provides ELOS for the public is the restriction to flying recreational standards only with a valid driver’s license. The general FAA definition of recreational flying is daylight VFR in a piston airplane with fixed landing gear, a single engine of 180 hp or less, carrying no more than one passenger. The airplane can have more than two seats, but only one passenger can be onboard.

The single passenger limit provides ELOS because the ultimate risk is limited to only two individuals in the airplane. The small size and light weight of airplanes that meet the rule minimizes the damage a crash could cause to those on the ground. That the  risk is no greater for a pilot with a driver’s license flying to recreational standards than the same person with a third class medical in the same airplane is obvious to me. And should be to the FAA.

There are other data to support an ELOS for the petition including that glider and balloon pilots have flown without medical certification for decades. And that Sport Pilots have been flying with a driver’s license instead of medical certificate for nearly seven years and the NTSB has not found a medical issue to be the cause of any accident.

A huge number of pilots want to fly recreationally and most of those find the medical certificate requirement to be costly and burdensome. The pilot population is not growing and we need to keep more pilots active in the types of airplanes they already own and fly, and the EAA/AOPA petition can help do that.

I have hopes this petition will be approved because it is the first to ask for an ELOS. All other petitions have argued that medical certification does no good whatsoever. This petition says the safety goals of medical certification are logical and important but this petition offers an alternate method to achieve those goals which makes it the classic ELOS.

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21 Responses to Third Class Medical and FAA ELOS

  1. Bill Berson says:

    Excellent blog report.
    The only downside is that, if approved, the LSA manufacturers might loose business.
    I don’t know how many older pilots are considering LSA because of the medical issue, but I think it is substantial.

    If this passes, then a used C-150 will go up in value, I think. And new LSA sales may decline
    I hope it is approved. This is move in the right direction, we need more ELOS options.

    • Larry says:


      If there is going to be “such an impact” on the LSA market, then WHY am I having one dickens of a time FINDING a flight school that has one on their flight line to be trained in?? Let’s get really real here. GA is suffering a huge blow just from the costs of higher fuel prices. Now you limit the number of LSP’s available to rent/fly/train in too?? I can see NO IMPACT against the LSP. None. All I ask is to let’s get back to the “basic old standard” aircraft that most everyone trained in ….the Cessna 150. Make just THAT plane alone exempt from the LSP weight ruling and I guarantee you, you WILL see GA making a comeback. Just about EVERY flight school has one on their flight line………enough said. I just hope the FAA makes some sort of ruling on this before I die of old age! The FAA has NEVER been known to make ANY decision in less than 10 years (or so it feels that way!)

  2. Jon Carlson says:

    “I believe the objectives of the medical certification system are good and necessary. ”

    Personally, I would like to have more than a “belief” to continue to justify the medical certification system. It’s a huge and expensive bureaucracy. Shouldn’t there be some kind of *data* to show that it does something?

    My own guess (I have no data, but then again neither does the FAA) is that you could throw away the medical certification entirely and overall safety statistics would be affected not at all.

    So rather than accept that the goals of medical certification are good (hard to argue against “safety”), we need to turn the conversation toward some kind of study or data collection that can demonstrate one way or the other whether it even has an effect on safety. Only then can a really rational discussion about the medical certification be had.

  3. John Stockman says:

    I think this will be as significant or more so than creating the LSA category. With the limited amount of flying that I and many others do, justifying the purchase of a used 150, 172 or similar aircraft will be very easy.

  4. Thomas Boyle says:

    It will be interesting to see how the FAA responds. If the response is “why would we do this?” we will wonder why AOPA and EAA made such a big public fuss about the request without first building a coalition of support for it within the FAA and the congressional supporters. We will then have a situation where the driver license medical would likely be off the table for a long time.

    So, I’m hoping they’ve pre-assembled a coalition of support for this! (Especially congressional support.)

    I agree there’s been some concern about the impact on LSA. However, LSA should always have been marketed more for their innovation and not quite so much as airborne buggies for old folk. Most of them have quite a lot of sex appeal!

  5. roger B says says:

    Lets hope this is a first step in realizing the value of educating pilots to the value of ‘self certification’ that all of us likely use before flight. I would not risk myself, friends or loved ones if I didn’t “feel A-OK” before any flight, and that also applies to driving. Since this is a requisite for all the pilots I know, with the added aeromedical knowledge noted on this proposed change, should be more then sufficient as a change. New LSA aircraft still have their appeal as has been noted, especially the ICON A-5.

  6. Frank R. Sandoval says:

    Good article Mac. Your right on point. I foresee the petiton going through this time. An ELOS request was what the FAA honchos were looking for.

  7. Chris Moon says:

    This may be fine for USA domestic flying. But will it be accepted
    under ICAO or for flying to Canada, the Bahamas, Caribbean and Mexico?

  8. Henry Brecher says:

    The same logic holds “even” for those who have at some point been denied a medical but have demonstrated that they are nevertheless healthy enough by jumping through all the FAA’s hoops for years (decades) to get a Special Issuance.

  9. Bob Grigsby says:

    Do you really think the FAA will give up power,money and jobs?

  10. Dale Egan says:

    I like the applied logic in this sentence, and those preceding it:

    “So pilots of all levels self-certify their medical fitness every day except the one day they go to the AME for the exam.”

    I like that because it is a poignant, and therefore effective, logic and position to take in a negotiation of this kind – toward the goal of eliminating the current 3rd class medical requirements in favor of those associated with driver’s license.

    The line of thinking captured in that sentence, in my view, will be much more effective than a position that the 3rd class medical is somehow ‘costly’ or ‘burdensome.’ Really?! Costly? It is ~ $150 and only takes an hour, plus waiting room time. Burdensome? More burdensome than a check ride? More burdensome than a preflight? More burdensome that training for and receiving one’s license in the first instance? Something that cheap and simple, and something which is only required once every two years!…. won’t be the winning approach.

    It seems counter-intuitive to pivot any negotiation or rationale for eliminating the current 3rd class medical requirements under either the cost or burden banners.

    Pilots are required to be meticulous and bear the many details and burdens of every flight. How did an hour become burdensome by any comparison to the actual requirements of the activity itself? Should someone be allowed to operate an airplane if getting a checkup every two years is too challenging? I would be afraid of appearing silly and losing the discussion before it even started.

    As someone entering the mid-to-later stages of flying – I feel a natural tendency to repeat many prior aviation authors’ articles in which they caution that the inherent nature of this initiative actually primarily energizes the wrong section of the pilot population.


    Good article, made me think in a new way, and I like that.

    The quoted sentence noted above and the logic behind it was a genuine “ah ha, that’s a good point” moment for me. That’s a great way to think about it, and I hope this next appeal phase uses more of that creative and accurate type of thinking and approach rather than the ‘it’s too difficult’ mindset, which seems a failed logic.

    • Jeff Pierson says:

      Dale, as you age, your doctor may find some little issue that the FAA disallows, and it could take YEARS of effort to satisfy them that you are really safe to be a Pilot. THAT is the huge time and effort soak.

  11. Bill Ross says:

    Why not fix the problem instead of jimmying with a crappy work around? If the 3rd class medical is out of date, inapplicable or unreasonable, fix the damn thing.

  12. Mac says:

    Hi Bill,
    The important thing is to get started toward an operating standard that delivers equal safety without restrictions that do not improve safety but can keep qualified pilots from flying. When it comes to changing decades old rules nothing happens quickly and only small steps can be made at a time and the results of those changes then documented over time. That’s why EAA and AOPA crafted a petition that has a chance of being approved while the many, many previous petitions for changes in the third class medical requirements have failed.
    Mac Mc

  13. Thomas says:

    If passed this will not only allow skilled pilots to continue to fly proven aircraft such as the 150/152, 172 but will allow many to once again fly legally and insure their aircraft with themselves as pilot in command. When the FAA approved light sport aircraft to be operated with a driver license medical instead of a 3rd class medical this allowed many pilots the ability to legally fly again. The problem, only the pilots that could afford these new aircraft(many over $100,000) could do so. Many of these new aircraft can out perform certified aircraft such as the 150/152 and other aircraft designed for training. The EAA/AOPA has put together enough documents to prove to the FAA that expanding the drivers license medical to apply to recreational pilots
    is not only safe but fair to all pilots. It’s only natural that as we age we must understand our limitation due to the aging process. Perhaps we should not fly a turbo prop under IFR conditions carring passengers. However flying your 172 on a nice day
    can allow a few of us to grow old with a smile.

    • Geno says:

      180hp? Make it 200. High performance aircraft have over 200 hp acording to the. FAA. This would help this Pitts driver. I worry every year. Special issuance just means maybe. And the wife says that I worry to much. She’s right about the worried part. To much? Not from my point of view.

    • Scott Powell says:

      Thomas – agree 100%…too bad it won’t allow me to fly with both my wife and son on board…


  14. John says:

    The harm to LSA manufacturers is likely partially offset by the very low fuel consumption LSAs have. With very high fuel prices, that is a major attraction for the LSA. And also the modern designs are faster than C150s or even C172s. The Arion lightning for example is faster than either and burns less fuel.

    Often the attention to a risk is vastly disproportionate to the objective factors of that risk. I believe that is the case with 3rd class medicals exams. In all of general aviation, there are about 600 fatalities a year. Of those, only a tiny fraction are due to outright physical incapacitation (like a stroke or heart attack). Perhaps 30 cases occur a year, if that. But then you are talking about a number similar to that of people struck by lightning each year. It is silly to have a major federal bureaucracy policing that level of risk. There are dozens of categories of risk much higher than due to pilot incapacitation, where no formal entities looks at it at all. Literally, about as many are killed by falling out of bed each year. There is no bed inspection bureaucracy. The type of incapacitation caused by alcohol or drug abuse is probably a much higher aviation risk than outright incapacitation from a stroke or heart attack. But alcohol and drug abuse is not something a physical exam prevents. Anyone could go to a bar, then go flying (as dumb as that would be). But education might help prevent that kind of risk, and that is what this proposal includes. But my main point is that the risk numbers from outright incapacitation are absurdly low compared to the massive federal bureaucracy policing it with the incredibly intrusive 3rd class medical.

    I also wonder if the FAA will voluntarily relinquish power, money and jobs.

  15. Scott Powell says:

    Dale – yes it IS costly. I fly special issuance for type 1 diabetes. Last year I switched jobs and got different insurance. I was unable to switch to a “covered” insulin because of fear that changings insulins would subject my SI to revocation. I was unable to switch to a “covered” endocrinologist for same reason. Ditto for my opthamologist.

    All told, I probably spend in excess of $3000 to $4000 dollars last year because I couldn’t change to medicines / doctors that were covered under the insurance.

    And quite truthfully, it’s idotic that one branch of the government says I’m inherently “unsafe” to fly (in wide open skies where I seldom see another plane) and have to go through a huge, painful SI renewal every year (often losing weeks of flying time right in the middle of summer because the beuaracrats in Oklahoma City have a 3 month backlog for SI processing), while another branch of the government says I’m perfectly safe to drive 65 miles an hour in bumper to bumper traffic with other cars literally 5 feet away from me.

    This petition is NOT for all the people who just go in and get their 3rd class medicals, it’s for all the people who have health conditions that do not affect our ability to fly, but we’re subjected to hideous complexity just to maintain our medicals.


  16. Jeff says:

    It would be very interesting if someone could work out an actually mathematical comparison between the risk of actually causing injury between flying and driving a car – even in a worse case where the driver/pilot is totally unconscience. I would guess it would be way over a million to one that there is way more chance of injury or death from the car.

  17. Eli Hobbes says:

    All the commenting pilots are looking at this from the perspective of their own individual points of view. I can certainly empathize. I have to jump through the FAA hoops every 3 years becaise of a history of migraines. But the process isn’t about me, it isn’t about keeping recreational aviation alive. The process is about keeping planes from doing 100+ mph power dives into homes and businesses. So today as it exists, how often do we hear or see of a pilot slamming into people laden places because they had a seizure or a heart attack? Rarely! But how often do I, as a paramedic, see motor vehicle collisions caused by the driver having a seizure or a heart attack? It’s not common but it is far, far more often than rare! As it’s written now, should they processes go into place, I believe we WILL see significantly more fatlities onboard and on ground that result from the pilot’s incapacitation due to medical reasons. As a community we have to ask if these numbers of preventable deaths will be acceptable. I would tend to think not. But we’ll see how this all shakes out.

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