Fly Well

Making medical matter

December 1, 2009

You are one in a million. Well, figuratively speaking, anyway. With a world population of 6,788,370,011, according to Census figures—and a global estimate of 1,200,000 pilots, according to AOPA—you are one in roughly 5,657. Certainly special, one of a select breed. To obtain and keep your certificate to fly requires the acquisition of knowledge and skills, the expenditure of time and money, and one other thing, almost unique to aviation as a profession or avocation—a doctor’s approval of your good health. Without that, you lose your medical certificate and the only thing flying is your certificate—out the window (unless your circumstances allow you to transition to sport pilot privileges). Think about it; practically no other skill-based pursuit is characterized by this fact—not scuba diving, horseback riding, rock climbing, or even origami.

We all make that trek to see our aviation medical examiner (AME)—many of whom are not pilots—hopeful that once again the box will be ticked and we get to keep our ticket for a year or two or five longer. But what does the average AOPA member do between medicals to ensure that the next time is smooth sailing? (Forgot about that one, sailing; you don’t need a medical for that, either.) Perhaps there are steps that a pilot can take to guarantee that takeoffs keep coming—followed, of course, by the requisite number of landings. If pilots were to modify certain behaviors, carry out a number of screening tests, or exercise more care in commencing a course of prescription medication (and also exercised, period), what problems with the AME may not arise?

In a typical year AOPA medical certification staff respond to more than 60,000 questions from members whose medical certificates have been deferred for one reason or another, many of which are avoidable. A large number of you have contacted AOPA over the years for help with special issuance, and some of the stories of astonishing medical comebacks have been told on Pilot’s pages—Malvern “Skip” Monaghan Jr., the pilot flying again after a heart transplant (see “ Medically Speaking: A Second Chance,” August 2008 AOPA Pilot), or, in the case of Beck Weathers, the tale of his journey into flight after having battled frostbite (see “ Ending Up on Top,” April 2009 AOPA Pilot).

Some pilots know about TurboMedical®, the AOPA tool that speeds your journey through the AME office. But what else can AOPA do for you, your health, and that piece of paper that says you have met the required standards and can keep flying? What about helping you keep well, so that you can fly well?

AOPA is committed to serve its membership in many ways—articles about new aircraft, equipment, and facilities; the work of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation; insurance, financial services, and the AOPA Legal Services Plan. From a personal perspective as a long-time renter, until I read the seminal article in our magazine, I had no idea that without special insurance I was flying naked—OK, bad visual there; I meant without renter’s insurance, not clothes. I promptly subscribed to the Legal Services Plan.

I am delighted to tell you that AOPA is now planning to add a range of medical services to its menu of offerings to help keep you well and keep you flying. As a physician and pilot I am thrilled to have the opportunity to fly left seat on this initiative that we are calling, quite appropriately, Fly Well.

The first elements of AOPA Fly Well should appeal to everyone—a plan to help reduce your health care costs and to provide enhanced access to AOPA’s medical certification team, led by Gary Crump. Please check out what is offered—there will be further details to follow in the pages of this magazine, on the Web site, and in your mailbox. We are also planning a range of new offerings, specifically tailored to pilots and their interests (see “ Don’t Get Lost”).

Those of you who attended AOPA Aviation Summit in Tampa saw the announcement of this effort and had a chance to meet some of the organizations and individuals who are going to team with AOPA to ensure that we bring you the very best of preventative and therapeutic options. Under consideration are products and services to improve your health and reduce your costs; one of the first is likely to offer a range of tests to detect cardiovascular disease before it declares itself. These noninvasive tests allow people to take often very minor steps to head off a major cardiac event and the ensuing risk of chronic poor health, early death, and—of course—loss of one’s medical certificate. Other offerings will include wellness retreats designed specifically for pilots to be held at locations around the United States with a phenomenal, world-class faculty and, in the enduring spirit of AOPA, a range of educational tools via the pages of AOPA Pilot, AOPA Online, and electronic newsletters.

I am proud to have been asked to serve AOPA as medical counsel, and I want to garner your assistance in designing the right services. I will value hearing from you and am at your disposal to discuss this via e-mail or in person at various events. At AOPA Summit we talked about what the future holds—let us plan it together and stay healthy to fly into that future together.

You do your very best to fly well; now we want to help you fly really well!

Jonathan M. Sackier holds a Bachelor of Surgery from the Liverpool University. E-mail the author at jonathan.sackier@aopa.org.

Jonathan Sackier