President's Position: The airman medical

September 1, 2008

AOPA President Phil Boyer became a private pilot in 1967.

What’s the most under-utilized resource AOPA offers its members? Without a doubt, it’s our medical certification services. And considering how important a medical certificate is to an active pilot, I have a hard time understanding why more of you aren’t using all of the AOPA resources available to you to help you get and keep your medical. They are included as part of your annual membership fee.

Whenever I talk to members, two concerns always are at the top of the list: the rising cost of flying and problems with a medical certificate. Now as much as I wish that AOPA could wave a magic wand and cut fuel prices in half, I’m afraid that there isn’t much that we can do in the short term to put a dent in costs. And there are some medical conditions—such as epilepsy—that make it much more difficult to get a medical certificate. Yet there are a whole range of medical issues—from insulin-dependent diabetes to a heart transplant—where it is possible to still fly with the FAA’s blessing, if you go about it in the right way.

And yet hundreds of our members every year give up flying because they either thought they could no longer qualify for a medical certificate, or didn’t know how to go about getting a special issuance medical after being denied a regular medical certificate. What a shame.

Less than six percent of AOPA members ever contact our medical certification department. And an even smaller number use our TurboMedical® online interactive form before going to the aviation medical examiner (AME). Yet doing so could make the difference between flying and ground pounding.

TurboMedical helps you identify potential problems before you visit your AME. Even if you think that you have no disqualifying medical conditions or aren’t using any disqualifying prescription drugs, completing the online TurboMedical form is added insurance to make sure you’ll pass. And if TurboMedical flags a problem, you have the chance to resolve the issue before you’re denied a medical certificate. Sometimes it’s as simple as switching from one medication to another.

If the issue is more complex than that, many times a pilot can keep flying with a special issuance. But your AME, who most likely does aviation examinations on a part-time basis, may not always know what conditions may qualify for a special issuance or how to jump through FAA’s hoops to get one.

But AOPA’s medical certification team does. Each year they help thousands of pilots get back in the air.

“As a professional pilot, your efforts to help me made the difference between being employed or potentially looking for a new career,” wrote one member recently. AOPA’s medical team had helped him and his AME work through a special issuance required because of a kidney stone.

“Last Thursday, the FAA dropped a bombshell on me, saying that I’m ineligible for any class of medical certificate because I’m taking an unapproved medication,” wrote another member. “I immediately called AOPA. Today I received by fax a document from the FAA confirming my eligibility for a second class medical certificate.”

AOPA’s medical efforts go beyond helping individual pilots, however. Your association is constantly advocating for changes in the regulations—backed up by current medical science—to permit more pilots to fly.

Some time ago a noted heart surgeon told me that, although he was taking an anti-depressant, the medical establishment allowed him to perform multiple heart surgeries each day, but the FAA wouldn’t allow him to fly his Bonanza. That’s an issue that AOPA has been working on for several years. Our board of aviation medical advisors in 2006 submitted a protocol to the FAA for certifying pilots taking certain antidepressants. We expect that a new policy will be issued in the near future.

We also worked to give greater authority to AMEs and FAA’s regional flight surgeons. Now the AME, rather than FAA’s Oklahoma City office, can make the decision to continue certifying a pilot with a special issuance. The AASI (AME assisted special issuance) program means that pilots can renew their special issuance medical certificate with the local AME, and not risk having the certification lapse while it is being processed in Oklahoma City.

Speaking of processing, AOPA has spent a good number of years working with the FAA to digitize the aeromedical record system, including lobbying Congress for implementation funds. It’s been a long process, but now that the document imaging workflow system (DIWS) is working in the FAA’s aeromedical headquarters and in the regions, the medical certificate backlog has been almost eliminated, and pilots can get more timely decisions on their medicals.

So while pilots may worry about their medical certificates, today the picture is much brighter than it was a few years ago. With AOPA’s help, chances are pretty good that you can get a medical certificate, even if you have one of the mandatory disqualifying conditions. And every year we manage to push the envelope a little more to get more people flying. All you need to do is log on or call. It’s a little-known benefit of AOPA membership.