Keep flying: ‘Hoorah’

Members voice their opinions on driver’s license medical

December 1, 2011

When it comes to medical certification and staying in the air, pilots want the best of both worlds. That’s why AOPA and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s request for an exemption to allow pilots to use their driver’s license and medical self-certification to fly certain aircraft recreationally is resonating with members.

For some, the AOPA-EAA joint effort is a sign of hope that would allow them to continue flying.

“Hoorah! I am so glad to finally see that the AOPA and the EAA are petitioning the FAA for the medical self-certification exemption for recreational and private pilots,” one pilot wrote to AOPA, explaining that his large build prevented him from carrying full fuel and a passenger in many two-seat aircraft. “I'm comfortable in the Skyhawks and Warrior.” The associations will request that recreational through air transport pilots be able to use their driver’s license and medical self-certification if they choose to fly recreationally and abide by the limitations of the exemption.

Many pilots said they would gladly fly an aircraft that was less than 180 horsepower and had fixed landing gear, and would limit themselves to one passenger and day VFR flight. And, they would make sure they were fit for flight.

“I know one thing, I check my own blood pressure using a digital OMRON unit and I would save $100 [biennially] from the 3rd class medical. In addition, I do have yearly physical examinations that check my cholesterol and any other blood irregularities,” another member wrote, later adding, “At first I was anti-driver’s license medical, but I can now see the immense advantages for 3rd class pilots.”

However, not all pilots see the medical certification process as a hassle.

“I keep seeing the third class medical called ‘a burden.’ A ‘trouble,’ and an ‘expense.’ I'm not certain how much of a burden an $85 medical exam every two years really is,” another member wrote. “You can't call it expensive. People spend that much on dinner and a movie.”

Direct and indirect costs to pilots and the federal government add up to much more than the cost of the medical, however. “When you factor in the time and expense for travel, extra testing some pilots are required to undergo, and the expense for the FAA to process, the costs are significant,” explained Kristine Hartzell, AOPA manager of regulatory affairs.

Another member wrote to AOPA about the overall savings—and economic boost—the exemption would have on the industry. “They talk about the savings to pilots of medical costs, but what about the economic stimulation from 10,000 eligible aircraft suddenly being opened up for sale? Also, gas sales at airports, pilot equipment, new avionics, etc. The list goes on and on. They've been asking how to turn around GA and this sure could do its part. Also, many younger pilots could train in 172s, etc. and leisurely get their physical if they wanted to upgrade to bigger aircraft.”

When it comes to the limitations with which pilots would need to comply in order to use their driver’s license and self-certification in lieu of a medical certificate, members are divided.

“I can see day, VFR conditions and at or below 10,000 feet,” one member wrote, while another countered, “I fly in the Sierra Nevada Mountains--a 10,000-ft limit is a joke around here! And again, if I can self-certify at 10,000 ft, I can do so at 12,500 ft and beyond. This is completely absurd!” Under the request, pilots would have to fly below 10,000 feet msl or 2,000 feet agl, whichever is higher, a point many pilots have misunderstood.

Some are content with aircraft of 180 hp or less, saying “I would very much like to continue flying my airplane that is certified as ‘Day-VFR only,’ has one seat, and 180 hp engine,” while others say the limitation is “too narrow,” leaves out “antique airplanes that fit all the criteria except 180 horsepower or less,” and excludes many seaplanes that have “retractable gear, most are over 200 to 300 hp, and some are multiengine.”

The limitations that the two organizations believe give the exemption the best chance of success are similar to that of the recreational pilot. AOPA and EAA specifically chose those limitations because they represent the next step up from the sport pilot privileges and would allow more than 56,000 familiar aircraft to be flown with a valid driver’s license. When the FAA was working on the recreational pilot proposal in the mid-1980s, the agency considered allowing the driver’s license to be used in place of a medical certificate.  

Although members disagree about different points of the limitations being proposed, many pilots agree on one point: responsible pilots can self-certify their fitness for flight.

Data on the subject is supported by another significant factor, that “pilots in general are safety conscious and don't want to kill themselves,” a member reasoned. “If I thought there was a problem I would not fly. If I thought there was a problem I would not take my children and grand children flying with me.”

AOPA and EAA’s proposal would require participating pilots to complete a free online course about medical self-certification every two years. The course would be designed to teach pilots how to properly self-certify that they are fit to fly and make sure they understand the responsibilities associated with doing so. Equipping pilots with more information on medical self-certification will enable them to make better-informed decisions about their fitness before climbing into the cockpit.

Whether pilots wholeheartedly agree with the AOPA-EAA initiative or would like to see different limitations to accommodate their own scenarios, most recognize the overall positive step that allowing more pilots to fly using their driver’s license and self-certification would have on the industry—and they want to get involved.

“What is [it] that AOPA Members could be doing to help get this Exemption approved?” one member asked. Right now, members can sign up to receive email alerts on the progress of the exemption request. Those who sign up will receive a notice when you they can submit comments on the request to the FAA. Members also can read the frequently ask questions that AOPA and EAA have compiled to provide more insight into the reasoning associated with the limitations of the request.