Keep flying: Looking beyond medical certificates

November 2, 2011

Responding to member concerns, AOPA and the Experimental Aircraft Association will, after the first of the year, request an exemption that would allow many pilots flying the most common single-engine aircraft recreationally to use a driver's license and self-certification medical standard.

Some members have asked, “If a third-class medical certificate, with its costs and burdens, isn’t necessary for pilots who fly small, single-engine aircraft for recreational purposes, why not request that it be eliminated?”

The FAA’s negative responses to past requests to modify the requirement to hold a third-class medical certificate clearly demonstrate that doing away with it is a large leap that the agency is not ready to take. The industry has had success, however, in seeking incremental changes such as allowing pilots under the age of 40 to obtain a third-class medical certificate that expires 60 months after the date of examination instead of 36 months.

The FAA also had at one time considered allowing pilots flying for recreational purposes to fly without a medical. When the FAA proposed the recreational pilot certificate in the mid-1980s, an option for self-certification was included in the proposal; however, when the rule was implemented the agency decided to require a third class medical certificate. AOPA’s proposal builds upon later action taken by the FAA to allow the driver’s license medical for sport pilots by extending the same privileges, with the addition of an educational course, to pilots flying recreationally, which is the next logical step.

Petitioning for an exemption also offers a potentially quicker process of FAA review than would a full rulemaking effort on abolishing the third-class medical certificate. And there is history to suggest that the chances for a positive outcome are greater: In recent years, the FAA granted exemptions from drug-testing requirements for pilots of charity sightseeing flights, and allowed training in some Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft equipped with throwover yokes—exemptions later codified as a rule.

With statistics indicating that medical incapacitation is virtually nonexistent as an accident cause among self-certified pilots of light sport aircraft, balloons, or gliders, the associations hope that the petition will prevail, strengthening the case for further self-certification.

Pilots interested in the request may sign up for updates, including alerts when the petition is filed and when you may submit comments to the FAA.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.