You need it and you need it now

December 27, 2013

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Jonathan Sackier
Jonathan Sackier

  • Surgeon, Clinical Professor 
  • 30 years of healthcare experience 
  • Author of the “Fly Well” column in AOPA PILOT 
  • Flying since 15 years old, owns a Columbia 400 

Do you recall that sensation from school days? Sitting in an exam room, opening the paper and seeing that question, the one you dreaded would come up. You had the chance to read about the topic but procrastinated, deferred, skipped around, and avoided—and paid for it dearly. Unfortunately I do. But what has that got to do with flying, and your health? Simple. The question you dread is quite possibly going to come up. Are you going to be ready for it or panicked and irritated because you did not prepare? What question am I referring to? A medical condition that brings the FAA machinery to bear down on you, threatening your ability to exercise the privileges of flight.

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Think how baffling—and scary—it would be to fly in turbulent IMC through congested airspace at night. That is what dealing with a medical condition might be like for a pilot. I am a doctor with more than 30 years’ experience in the profession and yet when I or someone close to me has had a health issue I find it complex and frustrating knowing how to navigate my way through the system. So what is it like for folks who do not have access to "people in the know" or comprehend the lexicon? Now add in the complexity of responding to FAA document requirements for any given situation. One misstep and you could find yourself in a world of hurt as it relates to left seat time. 

Some examples where problems arise include failure to obtain the right materials for the FAA in a timely manner, a treating physician using terminology that gets the FAA hot under the collar, an aviation medical examiner failing to respond appropriately, or the airman addressing our Oklahoma City friends improperly. I have seen examples of each. Most astonishing was the pilot who was irritated at the delay in processing his paperwork so he thought it was a good idea to send FAA a "nastygram." Why he thought this was a good idea was beyond me, and what was even more perplexing was why he was astonished that things took even longer! 

However, like the cavalry riding over the ridge, help is at hand. AOPA's Pilot Protection Services provides us with experienced and skillful assets to help ensure as smooth a ride through FAA medical (and legal) terrain as possible. I would not recommend something that I did not subscribe to myself and having utilized the service, believe it is the best $99 I have spent in aviation. For less than the cost of 20 gallons of avgas, I received brilliant and expeditious help. 

When someone presents to a doctor's office with a medical problem, be it heart disease or breast cancer, the physician can initiate treatments to address the physical or functional issue. However, unless that doctor also understands that the patient has dis-ease, concern about what therapy will feel like and how the person's life will be impacted, the patient's needs have not been totally met. When you are unwell the last thing you need is more worry, so get the experts at Pilot Protection Services onto your team and tell all your flying friends. I certainly do. 

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is a surgeon, aircraft owner and AOPA Pilot Protection Services expert.

Jonathan Sackier