When 30-year-old Jared Birkholz gave serious thought to becoming a pilot, his physician told him, “Find a different hobby.”
Birkholz, who was born with a congenital heart defect, did not take the doctor’s advice. Instead, in June 2014 he found a flight school with a light sport aircraft and began taking lessons. On Dec. 7, he soloed in a Rans S-7 certified SLSA taildragger.
“Since I was young there has been the dream of taking to the sky and flying an airplane,” Birkholz said. His heart has a single ventricle, and he wears a pacemaker—his second. He had hoped to become a private pilot and, eventually, a career pilot by attending a technical college in Wisconsin.
Birkholz, who lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, with his wife, Jacquelyn, had registered for the professional pilot program and attended an orientation. Told that he needed to obtain a medical clearance to be formally enrolled, he spoke to his cardiologist, who said that he would have difficulty passing the medical exam, particularly with a pacemaker.
“I was not about to let a few words end my dream, but at the same time I felt quite defeated,” Birkholz said.
While insertion of a permanent heart pacemaker is a medically disqualifying procedure, airmen can apply for a special issuance. The FAA does not authorize special issuance for implantable defibrillators.
The Birkholzes began researching the issue. “A few weeks later [Jacquelyn] asked if I had ever heard of a sport pilot license,” he said. They searched the Internet, called fixed-base operators, and contacted AOPA. “I was able to discover that light sport was the way to go,” he said. “There was no medical needed, and since I had never failed a medical, my driver’s license was all I would need to begin.”
The sport pilot rule allows a certificated sport pilot to fly light sport aircraft without the need for an FAA medical certificate, so long as he or she holds a current and valid U.S. driver's license and has never had a medical certificate suspended, revoked, or most recent application for special issuance withdrawn.
Now to find a flight school with an LSA—a search that sometimes can be frustrating. After a dead end at another flight school, Birkholz discovered Plane Guys Aviation at Waupaca Municipal Airport in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He began training in June in the Rans S-7 with flight instructor Richard Merkley. Birkholz said his solo “was an amazing experience, and I can’t wait for all of my future flying.”
“I am so grateful to have found resources such as the AOPA and EAA to aid in my journey,” Birkholz said. He also credits the support of his wife, “who has been patient as I spend hours at the airport and talk flying all hours of the day, and my flight instructor who has given me the knowledge and confidence to continue flying.”