Can I fly after a stroke?

January 3, 2013

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Warren Silberman

Warren Silberman

  • Former Manager, FAA Aerospace Medical Certification 
  • Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine 
  • Expert in Aerospace/Preventive Medicine 
  • Pilot since 1986

The three terms one hears when dealing with a “stroke” are cerebrovascular accident, stroke, and transient ischemic attack (TIA). In a TIA, a person has neurological symptoms lasting for several minutes up to several hours. A stroke is one of the FAA's specifically disqualifying conditions. This means that if you go in for a flight examination and you had a stroke or TIA, the aviation medical examiner may not issue you a medical certificate without obtaining written or verbal permission from an FAA physician. The FAA medical term for this condition is a “transient loss of nervous system function.” This means that you will need to provide medical records, evaluations, and testing for the FAA medical folks to review and determine whether they will grant you a special issuance.

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Generally, an airman who has been diagnosed with a stroke or TIA cannot obtain consideration for medical certification until two years after the event. This is because there is an increased incidence of a recurrence during that time period. If the stroke can be directly related to a treatable condition such as a cardiac irregularity ( atrial fibrillation) or blockage in an artery that can be treated, then the FAA will “consider” you for special issuance after one year of observation.

You will need to obtain the medical records from the hospitalization or emergency room visit, any neurological evaluations, and results of any brain scans for the FAA to review. Generally, they will want you to have had a cardiovascular evaluation, echocardiogram of your heart, maximal stress testing, ultrasound check of your neck arteries, and current neurological evaluation. These tests, except the current neurological evaluation, can be performed during the two-year period that you are grounded.

There has been a new addition to the requirements in the past several years. If you have had a stroke involving most areas of the brain, you may need to provide the FAA with what is generally called cognitive testing. Call the AOPA medical certification staff and ask if you will need this testing. If you are a member of AOPA Pilot Protection Service, remember, you can also mail them your records for review, prior to sending them into the FAA. It pays to contact them as soon as you have recovered, in case you have the situation I mentioned above in the second paragraph.

For more expert advice and professional assistance with protecting your pilot and medical certificates all year round, visit AOPA Pilot Protection Services.