The FAA announced that it has begun the rule making process to change the requirements for a Third Class medical certificate for private flying. No details have been announced, but the FAA said it is still considering the EAA/AOPA petition to allow a driver’s license to replace the Third Class for private flying in basic airplanes.
Why is the FAA finally responding after years, and even decades, of requests and petitions to change the medical requirements? My guess, and the obvious one, is that Congress has introduced legislation to force the FAA to defend and justify the current medical standards in terms of safety or change them.
The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act that has been introduced in both the House and Senate would require the FAA to expand the driver’s license medical option to a large variety of piston airplanes if it is enacted. The FAA doesn’t want Congress making any more rules so I think the FAA is now going to finally try to take the lead on an issue that has gained huge momentum.
So what limitations do I think we can expect to be in a new driver’s license medical standard?
First, there will be a weight limit. The reason is that a private pilot can fly any size of airplane. So long as he is not being compensated a private pilot can legally fly an Airbus A380, or Boeing 747. Obviously, the FAA, and probably not even the public or Congress are going to give that unlimited privilege to a pilot without a medical certificate.
My guess is that the new rule will set the upper weight limit at 6,000 pounds. That is the weight in the legislation and it is also a long standing certification break point. Airplanes that weigh more than 6,000 pounds are still in the “small” airplane category of Part 23 but move into a class or category II with more stringent performance requirements.
It’s no more challenging to fly a Cessna 421 than an Aztec but the 421 weighs more than 6,000 pounds and is in the higher certification category. The 6,000 pound break point has been around for many, many years. Since the new rule will need a weight limit of some type I expect the FAA to default to the traditional 6,000 pound threshold.
The safety issue in aircraft weight is the threat to the public. A larger, heavier airplane can simply do more damage and potentially injure more people on the ground in a crash. The FAA will be able to defend some weight limit, and I really don’t think it will be 12,500 pounds where an airplane transitions from “small” to “large” under certification and pilot qualification rules.
I don’t expect any restriction on fixed versus retractable gear. There is no way an airplane crashing with folded wheels is a greater threat to the public than a fixed gear.
I also don’t expect the new rule to exclude twins. Same thing. It’s weight, fuel onboard and other factors that raise the risk for people on the ground, not the engine count.
IFR or VFR? I don’t think the FAA can defend a rule that makes flying IFR riskier than VFR for qualified pilots. In fact, for years many inside and outside the FAA have said IFR is safer because the trained and qualified pilot can control the airplane in the clouds or low visibility.
Will there be a limit on the number of people onboard for pilots flying with a driver’s license medical? I expect it. When a new rule is introduced changing long standing policies the FAA can make a case to Congress that the small but unknown new risk should be limited. If there are fewer people onboard fewer lives are at risk.
My hope is that we will see a limitation of six people total onboard, including the pilot. My guess is that the rule will propose a limit of four. My fear is that the limit will be two.
The bill in Congress proposes an altitude limit of 14,000 feet for the driver’s license medical. I expect the FAA to successfully defend this restriction because it is a fact that nearly all of us lose tolerance for higher altitudes and lower oxygen levels as we age. It would be hard to argue that we drive cars above 14,000 feet so I expect the FAA to hold firm on that altitude.
I am also concerned that pressurized airplanes won’t be eligible for the driver’s license medical for the same reasons as the 14,000 foot altitude limit. If the cabin were to lose pressure at high altitude the risk would be the same or greater as flying an unpressurized airplane above 14,000.
There is a 250 knot airspeed limit in the bill in Congress. It doesn’t specify if that is indicated or true airspeed, but I’m assuming that it is indicated airspeed. There has been a 250 knot speed limit below 10,000 feet for decades so a 250 knot limit on an airplane with an operating ceiling restricted to 14,000 feet wouldn’t be much of a factor.
I hope that I’m wrong and that a new rule that emerges will allow us to fly for our own personal reasons in even broader categories of airplanes. But I hoped to be watching Michigan State play in the Final Four this weekend, too. State was in the game, had a good run and came close. Now we are finally in the game for Third Class medical changes and I expect we will get much, but not everything, that we want, and we think make sense. You must walk before running, and if my hopes come true a new medical standard will at least be a trot and on our way to a full gallop.