Multiple sclerosis doesn't keep pilot out of left seat
Multiple sclerosis doesn’t keep pilot out of left seat
It only took a flight along the California coast from Huntington Beach to Santa Barbara in her brother-in-law’s Cessna 421 for dinner to hook AOPA member Lissa Klueter on general aviation. But she didn’t think she would be able to get a pilot certificate because she has multiple sclerosis (MS).
“I wasn’t going to pursue it, even though I had fallen in love with the idea of learning to fly,” Klueter told AOPA Online during a March 11 telephone interview. “That all changed when I talked to my doctor friend, my neurologist, and the AME.”
Klueter, of Ashburn, Va., is one of only 321 U.S. medically certificated pilots who fall into what the FAA’s Aerospace Medical Certification division classifies as Pathology Code 620. This includes diseases such as MS, atrophy, chronic brain disease, Alzheimer-type dementia, Huntington’s disease, and impaired cognitive function.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease that attacks the central nervous system and can be disabling. Klueter, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1993, falls into the most common course of MS, relapsing-remitting. About 85 percent of people diagnosed with MS have this course, in which they experience flare-ups and complete recoveries, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Before starting flight training, Klueter worked with an aviation medical examiner to gather medical reports and letters from her doctors in order to get a third class special issuance medical certificate. Putting in the time, effort, and money for flight training only to be denied a medical would have been devastating, Klueter said of her reason for getting the medical first.
In 2000, she earned her private pilot certificate and bought a Cessna 206 with her husband, David. About one year later, he learned to fly. Both are now instrument rated, have more than 500 hours of flight time, and volunteer for Angel Flight missions.
Thanks to advances in medicine, Klueter takes maintenance medications. Her MS symptoms are not debilitating. During a relapse, she might experience numbness or tingling in different parts of her body, like her legs, arms, or face. Once, she also experienced blurry vision in one eye. At these times, she takes a high dosage of IV steroids for about five days and grounds herself from acting as pilot in command for one month to six weeks.
“I just like to give it a little extra time to be on the safe side,” Klueter said, explaining that while her ability to reason and function isn’t limited, she is tired after the relapse and wants her energy level to be back to normal before acting as PIC. She also said she’s overly cautious because she doesn’t want to jeopardize other pilots with MS from flying in the future.
Because Klueter is over 40, she must get her third class medical every two years, but she’s required to renew her special issuance annually. On years her medical is due, she takes all of the paperwork to her AME, and he gives her the third class medical certificate. Then, she receives a letter from the FAA stating what she will have to do to renew the special issuance in one year.
If she follows the FAA’s instructions exactly and sends in her paperwork a month in advance of the agency’s deadline, she usually receives the special issuance without a lapse in her flying privileges. But when her current special issuance is only a few weeks from expiring and she hasn’t heard from the FAA, she turns to AOPA Senior Medical Certification Specialist Jo Ann Wilson, who has been helping Klueter with her medical certification since 2000.
“She pings them. Somehow, she has a contact there,” Klueter said of Wilson’s relationship with the FAA’s aerospace medical team. A couple of weeks after she talks to Wilson, her special issuance arrives.
Wilson maintains a close relationship with the FAA by working with the staff in Oklahoma City, Okla., and talking with them three or four times a week. She’s able to work directly with the agency’s medical review staff on AOPA members’ cases and learn the FAA’s process in order to better help members. And, every Friday the medical certification staff submits a formal inquiry to the FAA with a list of AOPA members’ cases. Within a week or two, the FAA responds to each of those cases, either with a request for more medical information, confirmation that the application is being reviewed, or the decision that has been reached.
“If you have a situation like [mine], contact AOPA and do exactly what they say—exactly—and you’ll probably be OK,” Klueter stressed. Without AOPA, Klueter said she probably wouldn’t jump through all of the hoops required to keep her special issuance medical. The process would be too daunting.
Each year, AOPA helps more than 13,000 members with their medical certification problems. Because of AOPA’s close relationship with the FAA’s medical division, the association typically helps 40 percent get their medicals through the system faster.
If you have a question about medical certification or a condition that you think could keep you on the ground, call AOPA’s medical certification specialists at 800/USA-AOPA. They just might be able to keep you in the air.
March 13, 2008
March 13, 2008