President's Position

Fit to fly

November 1, 2011

Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, you’re making a judgment call. Are you fit to drive? Have you taken any medications that could impair your performance? Do you have a medical condition that would make you unsafe? Are you too tired to drive? Craig Fuller

In short, every time you get into the driver’s seat, you are self-certifying that you are medically fit to take control of that vehicle. That choice affects not only you, but also your passengers and every other driver and pedestrian you encounter along the way.

In a sense, you do the same thing every time you climb into an airplane. You know you can’t fly if you’ve consumed alcohol or taken certain medications. And you know better than to fly if you’re sick or tired or otherwise not up to the task.

Sure, you see the aviation medical examiner every couple of years, but he’s not giving you the once over before every takeoff. In between exams, it’s your call whether or not you are medically fit to fly. Every time you fire up the engine, you are self-certifying that you are fit to fly.

This system has been in place for a long time, and it has worked well. Pilots tend to be a responsible bunch and the vast majority take the regulations seriously. The driver’s license medical standard for the Sport Pilot certificate takes the idea even further, cutting out the medical examiner entirely.

If you’re healthy enough to have a driver’s license, you’re healthy enough to have a pilot certificate. And, like the rest of us, these pilots make the call about their own fitness before each flight. That standard has been around for more than five years now, and it has proven wonderfully safe. In fact, there has never been an accident caused by medical factors involving a sport pilot using the driver’s license medical.

I believe that many more pilots can fly safely without the time and expense of visiting an aviation medical examiner. That’s why AOPA and EAA are joining forces to ask the FAA for an exemption that will expand the driver’s license medical standard. Together our associations represent nearly all the general aviation pilots in the United States, and we know this is something thousands of you want and would use (see “Rally GA: The Doctor Doesn’t Need to Be In”).

We’ll be asking the FAA to allow pilots who hold any level of pilot certificate to fly with the driver’s license medical standard under certain circumstances. For example, you’d have to fly during the day and in good weather for recreational purposes—not for business. You couldn’t carry more than one passenger. And you’d have to fly a single-engine piston aircraft with fixed gear, no more than 180 horsepower, and no more than four seats. That would significantly expand the variety of aircraft that could qualify, as compared to the current aircraft that qualify for use by pilots under the driver’s license medical.

You’d also have to take an initial and recurring educational course on how to properly evaluate your readiness to fly. The course would cover aeromedical factors and decision making to help you make sound judgments about when you’re safe to fly and when you should keep your feet on the ground. The educational course would be available online so you could take it at a time and place that’s convenient to you.

I believe this element of the proposal could actually improve safety by raising awareness of the issues that can affect a pilot’s ability to fly safely. And it could evolve over to time to address emerging issues and persistent challenges.

And there’s another nice bonus to consider in this era of cost cutting. Conservative estimates show that we could save pilots almost $250 million over 10 years and save the federal government more than $11 million in the same period.

There’s plenty of evidence that medically self-certifying works, and there’s no reason to believe that it can’t work for many more pilots. We’ll be filing our exemption request next year, and you can count on hearing more about this as we move forward. In the meantime, fly safe and fly healthy.

Email AOPA President Craig Fuller at craig@aopa.org. AOPA President Craig Fuller has been flying safely for more than 40 years.

I believe that many more pilots can fly safely without the time and expense of visiting an aviation medical examiner.