The FAA and NTSB vs. Common Sense and (a few members) of Congress — Updated.

By Charlton Stanley, weekend writer

FAA logoThe Federal Aviation Administration issues medical certificates for pilots. There are three levels of medical certificates. Class I, Class II and Class III. The most stringent is the Class I. That is an extremely rigorous medical standard, and must be renewed every six months. This level of certification is for Air Transport Pilots who haul airliners full of passengers. The Class II is for all other commercial pilots. Not as stringent as Class I, but still quite high standards. The Class III medical is for private pilots, and is good for two years. The Class III medical examination is still a strict examination. One of the requirements is to fill out a list of EVERY doctor’s visit not already reported.  That means every visit to your family doctor for anything from a runny nose or worse. Do as I did a couple of weeks ago. Gashed my thumb on a piece of glass, and went to the emergency room for some stitches. Required to report that? Oh, yes indeed!

That application form is submitted to the FAA “Under Penalty of Perjury,” so errors of both commission and omission can and do result in draconian penalties.  One thing that sets off alarms at the FAA is a visit to a psychiatrist or psychologist. Many veterans have not sought treatment for combat related stress problems for fear of losing their license. I know a number of former Vietnam and Desert Storm combat pilots whom I suspect suffer from untreated PTSD in silence because they know if they see a VA psychologist or psychiatrist, a PTSD diagnosis is a license killer.  Yet, some of these pilots have been flying safely since the 1960s.

The requirements for passing a Third Class medical are the least strict, but are nevertheless stringent, especially if the pilot reports having sought mental health counseling.

Several years ago, in 2004, the FAA created a new class of pilot called Sport Pilot. Sport Pilots and are not required to have a Third Class medical certificate. A current and valid driver’s license will suffice. A Sport Pilot’s license is required to fly a light sport aircraft (LSA), but doesn’t need a medical certificate. A state issued driver’s license is sufficient. A Sport Pilot may not fly aircraft exceedomg the limits set by the LSA rule.

An explanation of the limitations and definition of LSA is at this link. Simply put, an LSA cannot weigh more than 1,230 pounds fully loaded with passengers and fuel. If it is a seaplane, the weight limit is 1,430 pounds. The FAA envisioned a light, easy to fly airplane of limited horsepower and speed. Curiously, that didn’t happen. In order to keep LSA machines under the weight limit, strength and other safety features were compromised. Additionally, as one F-16 pilot observed, “The damn things are so light and twitchy, you need the skill of an F-16 pilot to fly in anything but totally still air.”

Under the current FAA rules, an LSA can only carry two passengers. That’s fine; however, if an aircraft certified as an LSA has a third seat installed, it kills the LSA certification. let’s say your cousin Johnny, a professional airline pilot, wants to borrow your LSA legal plane and installs a portable child’s jump seat in the baggage area so he can take his kid to see grandma. The plane can never be certified as an LSA again. Ever, even though the jump seat is removed.

It gets even more curious. No medical certificate has ever been needed to fly a glider (including motorgliders), ultralights, and balloons. Curiously, motorgliders can be bigger, heavier and faster than light sport aircraft. Some can carry more than two people. It is also legal to fly a glider or motorglider with a commercial license for hire, and to even be a flight instructor, but no medical certificate is needed.

A private pilot holding a Third Class Medical can do almost anything a commercial pilot can do except fly for pay. Fly at night, on instruments, and use busy controlled airports. By comparison, Light Sport Pilots cannot fly at night or on instruments, and are limited on the types of controlled airspace they may enter.

If a pilot has ever applied for a medical certificate and was turned down for any reason, the FAA forbids that pilot from becoming a Light Sport Pilot. Ever. If a pilot does not renew the medical certificate and lets it lapse, there is no problem allowing that pilot to fly as a Sport Pilot, as long as he or she has a current and valid driver’s license, issued in the US.

Light Sport Aircraft are real airplanes, but tend to be small, cramped and underpowered. The FAA has defined LSAs as simple, easily flown aircraft meeting certain limitations on weight, speed, and have only two seats. This link provides an illustration and definitions. One thing us older pilots have learned about the LSA airplanes as they are now defined. It was a lot easier to get in and out of a Piper Cub when I was twenty-five years old than it is at my present age. Thus, part of this is about an aging population that wants to stay active, can still multitask, but the joints get creaky.

Here comes the problem. Lets say our pilot (we will call him George) has owned his 4-seat Cessna 172 since it was bought new in 1959. George keeps his plane immaculate and flies it frequently. Airplanes are not like cars, in that they really don’t wear out unless neglected. George wants to get his third class medical renewed since it will expire soon, but the last time he got it renewed, it was accompanied by a certified letter telling him next renewal he must submit to a complete cardiac workup by a cardiologist, and have numerous other tests. Now George is not an idiot and he can add. He does some quick calculations, and figures out his next two year renewal is going to cost him at least six thousand dollars. Cardiologists don’t come cheap and neither do neurologists. In some cases they may demand a complete psychological and neuropsychologial workup, which can add another two to five thousand dollars to the cost. Rather than risk failing on his medical, George just lets it lapse, so he can use light sport pilot privileges if he decides to go that route. Besides, if he got all the tests the FAA medical officer demanded, he wouldn’t be able to afford to fly anyway.

We have already established that George is no idiot, and that his only crime is to be in his seventh decade of life. He is still an excellent pilot and should be able to pass the physical, but the added tests are too burdensome. He wants to continue to fly and doesn’t want to sell his already paid for airplane. The FAA is, in effect, telling him he cannot fly a plane he has flown most of his life. He must sell it and get another one much smaller, more cramped, and has a new and steep learning curve because it is harder to fly in windy or bumpy air. Yet, he still has his driver’s license. The government is just fine with him climbing into his 3,500 pound automobile (or 8,600 pound Hummer), driving 70 miles an hour, passing within four feet of other vehicles going the opposite direction at the same speed, at a closing rate of 140 miles an hour.

By comparison, George’s Cessna 172 weighs 2,200 pounds, has a maximum cruising speed of about 120 miles an hour and lands at 55.

There are many different kinds of discrimination, but one of the most insidious is ageism. The FAA seems to have a problem with aging pilots, a problem that is increasingly compounded as the baby boomer generation ages. This diary is not about professional pilots and high performance aircraft. This is about the guy next door, your postman, a farmer, or maybe yourself. Sunday flyers who like to go sightseeing with the grandchildren, or take short trips on nice clear days. Many fly homebuilt aircraft, built in their barn or garage to save money. Many such homebuilt aircraft may not qualify as an LSA because they are too heavy, a little too fast, or carry more than two people. Since an LSA cannot have a controllable pitch propeller or retractable landing gear, a slick fiberglass homebuilt such as this one can only be flown by a pilot with a Third Class (or higher) medical certificate.

At the same time, a motorglider with retractable landing gear, more weight, and controllable pitch propeller can be flown with no medical certificate at all. Here are some photos of motorgliders with all kinds of features. Most exceed the weight limit for LSA, typically running about 1,500 pounds or more. Also, as one can see looking at these pictures, these are not little airplanes. Some have 57 foot wingspans. One of my friends flew his Grob 109 all over the US.

Getting back to the purpose of this story. At the insistence of a growing number of pilots, the FAA has been under a great deal of pressure to relax the standards for a Third Class medical certificate. The FAA, being bureaucrats who hate to give up power and control once it is in their grasp, asked for comments on a proposed rule change. The initial comment period closed, but the FAA has (apparently) been slow-walking the changes–for more than two years.

Exasperated, several members of the House and Senate who are pilots, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), a member of the House General Aviation Caucus, and GA Caucus Co-Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.) introduced the H.R. 3708: The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act of 2013 (GAPPA) in December. The bill now has a growing number of bipartisan cosponsors. Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), all members of the General Aviation Caucus, introduced S2103, an identical measure in the Senate which is picking up cosponsors. As an aside, I would like to note that a number of Congressmen and Senators (and their staff members) from both sides of the aisle are pilots. Some with military experience. This measure is about as far from a partisan issue as one can get.

The NTSB has just weighed in against doing away with the Class III medical for pilots. The chair of the NTSB expressed some vague concern that somebody, somewhere, might fly with a medical impairment. I have news for him, and for the members of the Committee who are obviously clueless. I have researched this issue carefully, and cannot find a single instance of an accident, fatal or not, that was caused by a medical impairment of an LSA or glider pilot. Accidents, yes. All caused by either mechanical failure or pilot error. Those accidents occurred at about the same (or less) incident rate as pilots with current and valid medical certificates.

After scouring the NTSB accident report database, I can find no incident of a sport or glider pilot flying on a driver’s license alone dying at the controls. However, there are several reports of both commercial and private pilots who died while flying. Several non-pilots or low-time pilots have had to land an airplane with a dead or incapacitated pilot in the left seat. The dead pilot having a current medical certificate in his or her pocket, I might add. This link takes you to an audio recording of one such incident.

Some non-pilot members of congress and the bureaucracy seem to be fearful of a pilot without a Class III medical flying after smoking a joint or taking pills. I have news for them. They pass people on the highway all the time who do that. Furthermore, most pilots have far too much invested in training and safety to do stupid stuff. As a group, both commercial and private pilots are far more attuned to the state of their own health than the average person. No pilot wants to be the first to the scene of an accident. Especially if they have the spouse and kids on board.

Here is a list of the co-sponsors of H.R.3708. I see that my congressman is on board.

Here is a list of Senators who have signed on as co-sponsors of S2103 so far.

General aviation is dying. Between the cost of fuel per gallon and insurance rates, it was in trouble to begin with. Add to that the obstructionism of FAA bureaucracy, and I can hear the hammering of coffin nails.

If somebody from the FAA, NTSB, or Congress can offer a rational explanation—based on scientifically valid research instead of somebody’s gut feeling—just how the Third Class Medical certificate for private pilots keeps the public safer, I am all ears. The floor is open in the comment section for a reply.

On July 31, at the EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, WI, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the FAA has (finally) sent a proposal to reform the Class III medical certification process to the Department of Transportation, “For review.”

He was questioned about details, but either would not or could not elaborate. Administrator Huerta said the FAA had heard the general aviation community “loud and clear,” and the proposal was going to go to the DoT for “vetting” then on to the White House Office of Management and Budget before it can be opened for comment in the fall. Say what? This has been a hot topic issue for ten years or more, and they are just now getting around to “vetting” a rule? Most of us who are keeping up with this understand that it was only pressure from GAPPA being introduced in Congress that got them off their behinds. I am not the only one who believes the new “action” by the FAA is an attempt to run out the clock on this Congress, and GAPPA. When they are finally pushed into actually making a rule, one can safely bet the FAA will not eliminate the Third Class, but put some lipstick on it in order to maintain near-absolute control.

In other developments the American Medical Association has come out against eliminating the Third Class medical. There is a constituency of Aviation Medical Examiner physicians in private practice who will see that part of their practice dry up if the Third Class is eliminated. As it is, AMEs are few and far between. Some pilots have to drive for hours just to get to an FAA designated doctor who does FAA exams.


A Disclaimer: The author of this article has multi-engine, instrument & glider ratings, and has been flying airplanes off and on since 1950. Also have done mental health evaluations for the FAA for years, and am a member of the Association for Aviation Psychology.
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

16 thoughts on “The FAA and NTSB vs. Common Sense and (a few members) of Congress — Updated.”

  1. Just to clarify my previous post…..I am now 58. The thousands I spent were for a full cardiovascular report for DOT because of the 10 yr anniversary of the heart issues. Cardiologist found no issues. Sent me back to the highway. Just need to see the DOT doc for normal commercial drivers licence med cards. No continuing tests for them. I can drive big iron in traffic, but can’t fly my ‘pop can’ out here in the sticks of ND. Bought my Cherokee 12 yr ago. Learned to fly in it. Now I’m supposed to fly a Cub? That will be safer!!

  2. I had heart issues 10 yr+ ago. Special issuance for 6 yrs. Just spent thousands for DOT class A. Absolutely no issues for more than 10 yr. Not going to do those stress tests every yr any more for FAA. Probably gonna sell the Cherokee. Wish I could fly. I’LL just continue to haul hazardous material, 105,500 Lb at 75 miles per hour every where. Legal.

  3. We’re from the government and we’re here to help you. Trying to conform the their rules so you could continue flying could lead to having to take Zyban.

  4. Darren,
    Buproprion is a well known antidepressant, sold under the brand name Wellbutrin. It is an aminoketone, which is chemically unrelated to tricyclic, tetracyclic, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI), or other known antidepressant agents.

    It is also sold under the brand name Zyban, which is exactly the same as Wellbutrin, but is marketed as an aid for smoking cessation. That finding came about when patients taking Wellbutrin reported losing interest in smoking.

    The FAA does not specify that one cannot take the medication, but if there is an notation in the patient chart even remotely related to depression, there could be a problem.

    The result is that all too many pilots self-medicate their depression with alcohol. In other words, the prohibition on antidepressants appears to INCREASE the risk of alcohol impaired pilots. Notice that every so often, some airline pilot shows up at the gate so intoxicated they end up being detained and fired.

    Of all psychiatric disorders, depression is the most easily diagnosed and treated. All but about 15% of clinically depressed patients respond to some kind of antidepressant medication. As long at the patient is on medication, or ideally, a combination of effective medication and counseling, there is typically no problem at all. The problem comes when the FAA medical officer won’t issue a clearance until the pilot is off their meds and no longer in treatment.

  5. One pilot I know of was having some issues and he was afraid a prescription he was about to be given could result in loss of his class III. He told the doctor and she said “Do you want to stop smoking? (Wink)” I guess the prescription had a dual use with smoking cessation. So, it seems the pilot decided to stop smoking. (Wink).

  6. The AMA passed a resolution opposing this act. Once again showing they are more interested in protecting the bottom line than in being advocates for their patients. Typical. And they wonder why their membership is now less than 18% of all U.S. physicians. Once upon a time, they did some good. Now they just do stupid.

  7. The update mentions a struggle to remove some of the inconsistencies and incoherency from the regs.

    And that it is now being resisted by doctors.

    Doctors who are more interested in the cash than in solving the good faith attempt at regulatory improvement.

  8. Thanks for the update on the medical certifications. It seems to be a bit of a mess.

  9. I loved to fly but quit voluntarily when I didn’t feel well enough to do so. I flew gliders and single engine land. By the time I felt well enough to fly, I would have had trouble getting the medical certification for the power planes but would have been able to fly the gliders. I went up a few times with an instructor but things in my life changed. I no longer fly. 🙁

    Oshkosh is something else. If you’re in the Elmira NY area, check out the Soaring Museum on Harris Hill, overlooking the Elmira-Corning airport

  10. Great story Chuck. I would think if they had over 100 co-sponsors in the House that they should not have a problem with passing it quickly. The problem may be getting them to actually read the legislation.

  11. Some of those bureaucrats need a “medical exam” for promulgating some of those senseless requirements.

  12. Chuck, Have you ever gone to the EAA in Oshkosh? I have taken my son there and done a surveillance there as well. They have a good museum.

  13. It amazes me, the bureaucratic thought process. If you are an extremely experienced pilot with a denied medical, you can’t fly, yet an ab initio pilot with some far more distracting health challenge can fly a light sport. Which one is more likely to cope well with a weather or mechanical issue?

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