By now, many of you have heard and read of the joint AOPA/EAA initiative to request an exemption from the FAA that would, if accepted, allow pilots flying recreationally to be able to do so with a valid driver’s license, provided there is no knowledge of a medical deficiency that would make the person unsafe to exercise those privileges. This exemption request is the most current in a series of similar requests made by AOPA over the last 10 years or so.
The current request for exemption, which is different from a petition for rulemaking, capitalizes on a number of factors that haven’t been available before. One is the success of the Light Sport self certification initiative that came into being in 2004. We now have some tangible data from the Light Sport experience that bears out the notion that medical self certification, at least for the Sport Pilot segment of General Aviation, doesn’t diminish aviation safety.
To date, the data reflect that there have been no LSA accidents that were associated with a medical incapacitation. There have been light sport accidents, to be sure; however, these accidents have been demonstrated to be transitional type mishaps associated with pilots who were scaling down to LSA from normal category Part 23 certificated airplanes and who were insufficiently familiar with the significantly different aerodynamic performance characteristics of light sport airplanes compared to the “heavier metal” they were accustomed to flying.
Another important consideration in these tough economic times is that the government is reaching high and low to save money, and the cost to pilots and to the federal government of administering 3rd class medical certification is nothing to sneeze at. Based upon FAA’s data compiled during the review in 2007 that led to the extension of duration of first and third class medical certificates, we have calculated that easing the medical certification requirements under the exemption request could save pilots more than $240 million over 10 years, and over $8 million in savings for the federal government over the same time period.
The exemption, if granted, would allow pilots to operate aircraft up to 180 horsepower, single engine, fixed gear, under day, VFR conditions, with one passenger. By adding the power limitation up to 180 HP, the GA fleet would be expanded by 50,000 or so airplanes that could be flown under the driver’s license self certification provision.
In any encounter with the FAA, the initiative being asked for has to demonstrate an equivalent or greater level of safety than what is currently in place. The argument against doing something different often is, “there is no data to support it.” There is rarely, if ever, any data to support something that’s never been done before. In 1996, when the FAA Federal Air Surgeon decided to consider insulin dependent diabetics for special issuance medical certification, that had never been done before, either. Industry, the American Diabetes Association, and the FAA gathered the opinions of the best qualified experts in medicine, including researchers, physicians, nurse practitioners, and other health care providers, and opened up the docket to comments from the public, and the support was overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that no pilot had ever flown “legally” while using insulin. Since that policy took effect fifteen years ago, I’m not aware that there has been a single accident attributed to in-flight medical incapacitation as a result of a pilot’s use of insulin. The data gathering came after the bold decision was made to change the policy.
The same situation resulted more recently when the FAA began allowing medical certification for pilots using antidepressants (SSRIs). A much newer program, in effect just since April, 2010, relied again on the opinions of leading clinicians and researchers, and very limited data compiled from other countries that had been certifying pilots with depression and on medications for some time, to arrive at the conclusion that the policy could be changed without compromising aviation safety. Again, as in the case of insulin treated diabetics, the FAA Federal Air Surgeon had to make the case to his bosses in the FAA and Department of Transportation without an overwhelming body of strong data to support the move.
Even though there are less than 30 pilots currently certified under this new program, the FAA is following them closely, so again, the real data comes after the decision is made to make the change.
We believe the same logic should apply with our request for an exemption to expand the drivers license self certification opportunity, and we even have some a priori data to work with from the LSA experience. We recognize that there are many aviation medical examiners that really aren’t comfortable with allowing pilots with potentially significant medical conditions to fly without “medical supervision.” We hear those concerns, and we get it.
However, keep in mind that self certification still means that the pilot has to determine he/she is safe to fly every time they get in the airplane, just like we’ve always done. We would hope and expect that every pilot would be conscientious about seeing a physician for periodic physical exams. That only makes sense, especially in an aging pilot population. The need for a medical certificate to fly should not be the motivation for staying healthy. Rather, staying healthy should be the motivation itself for seeing your family physician for an “annual body inspection.”
And, if the exemption is granted, part of the cost of playing will be participation in an online educational course that will provide some insights into what “self certification” really means. The course content, which is still being developed, will also include an overview of common medical conditions that could lead to possible incapacitation, and training about the effects of altitude on medication usages.
We believe the time is right to rejuvenate general aviation and get more pilots flying again, but doing it safely. One of the best ways to improve safety is to fly more proficiently, and proficiency comes from flying in the system.
Hopefully, the FAA will see it that way and grant us the exemption. Then the burden will be on us to prove that we can maintain that equivalent level of safety without the regulatory burden of a medical certificate for those operations covered under the exemption request.
When we file for the exemption early next year, we’ll be calling on your help to support the request. I’ve added a link below that will allow you to sign up to receive updates on the progress, and we’ll also let you know when the docket opens so you can send your own comments.