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Barriers to flying

Do they exist, and how are they to be handled?

“Oh, man, I’d love to learn to fly, but….”
Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg, photos by David Tulis and Mike Fizer
Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg, photos by David Tulis and Mike Fizer

That common sentence can have a lot of different endings. By far the most common reason people don’t learn to fly is the combination of time and money, of which there is never enough of either, almost regardless of who is talking. However, many people are convinced that something about them physically or mentally stands as a concrete barrier to aviating, so they don’t even try. However, those perceived barriers are often either mythical or misconstrued; They don’t exist, or they aren’t understood.

This is not to say that there aren’t barriers that can stop someone from becoming an aviator. They do exist. Some of them are regulatory in nature, others are medical, some might even be mental. But few factors are insurmountable. If a person is determined enough, they can find their way into a cockpit and learn to fly.

Let’s look at a few factors people are convinced will stop them from flying, but probably won’t.

Age

Too old: There are exactly zero words within the bazillion pages of federal aviation regulations that have to do with old age. In an unusually common-sense way for a government agency to act, the FAA ignores age and goes right to our conditions. If you can qualify for a medical certificate, they don’t care if you’re 142 years old (unless you plan to fly for the airlines; air carrier operations are restricted to age 65).

Insurance companies, on the other hand, are currently hung up on a two-digit number in a box on their application form, and that can cause problems. Recently, as general aviation pilots pass 65 years of age, it becomes both difficult and expensive to get insurance. As far as the FAA is concerned, you do not need insurance. However, if your airplane is financed, the company holding the lien will likely require you to have insurance to cover the loan. The airport on which you’re based may require at least liability insurance with them as named insured. And certain states have insurance requirements for aircraft. AOPA and other associations are attacking this from numerous directions with the goal of basing the premiums on factors supported by evidence, not the arbitrary measure of age.

Incidentally, in terms of whether you’re too old to learn, you can ask any long-time flight instructor about age and learning and almost all will say the same thing: It might take a little longer for a gray dog to learn all the tricks, but there’s no doubt they’ll learn them. Age is simply not a disqualifying factor.

Too young: Just as there is no upper age limit to being a private pilot, there is no lower limit set for taking lessons. In other words, you’re never too young to start learning. However, you have to be 14 years old to solo a glider and 16 years old to solo a powered airplane. To get your certificate in an airplane or helicopter, you have to be 17. It’s not by accident that a lot of young pilots solo on their sixteenth birthday. Some fly a dozen or so different airplanes that day because they’ve been taking lessons in them for several years as a student, so their sixteenth birthday is all about celebrating the concept of flight.

Medical considerations

The FAA has different levels of medical certification for different types of flying. Depending on the type of flying, pilots flying for hire may need a first or second class medical. The third class medical certificate is required if an individual’s goals include flying virtually any normally available general aviation airplane for a noncommercial purpose. However, in 2004 the FAA created another category of aircraft, light sport aircraft (LSA), with a new level of pilot certification and privileges—sport pilot—to make it easier for people to fly. When loaded, LSAs must weigh less than 1,320 pounds, carry only two people (pilot included), have a stall speed under 47 knots (52 mph), and have a maximum speed of 120 knots (132 mph). Sport pilots may fly light sport aircraft with a driver’s license in lieu of an FAA medical certificate. As for all pilots, it is up to the individual involved to self-assess their fitness to fly.

An additional medical qualification is BasicMed. This requires a physical by your normal doctor, not an FAA-licensed aviation medical examiner (AME). It may be a cheaper and less burdensome option for pilots once they have obtained an initial medical certificate.

There is one caveat that a potential pilot should know before going into either of these alternative programs: The pilot must not have failed an FAA application for a medical or had a certificate revoked to go into BasicMed or fly under sport pilot. If going light sport and some sort of medical condition results in driving limitations, the condition must have been addressed to a physician’s satisfaction to continue flying. In other words, if the applicant knows he has a condition that would stop him from driving, he shouldn’t attempt the application until that condition is addressed.

Eyesight: For a third class medical certificate the FAA only requires that both your near and distant vision be corrected to at least 20/40. Farsighted folks who require reading glasses are required to have them available while flying. These are usually bifocals. And the Feds are OK with cataract surgery, Lasik, and similar procedures. All they’re concerned with are the final results.

Color vision deficiency: You do not need perfect color vision to fly. One out of 12 men and one out of 200 women have colorblindness to some degree, usually difficulty seeing red and green. If you’re significantly colorblind, you can still learn to fly but your certificate may include restrictions against flying at night or by color control. However, quite often practical tests (they usually shooting a light gun at you from the tower) prove that even though you can’t pass the normal FAA color test book, you can tell the difference between aviation red and green so you can read the navigation lights on an airplane at night and tell the direction it’s moving. It also proves that you know what the different airport lights designate (taxiways, threshold, and so on). If you pass the practical test, you’ll receive a SODA (statement of demonstrated ability) certificate, which removes any colorblind restrictions from your certificate.

Barriers to flyingHearing challenges: A loss of hearing is at near epidemic proportions in the United States, and noisy cockpits don’t help the situation. However, with the advent of active noise reduction headsets, ambient noise has become less of a problem. In most cases, where hearing aids are required for normal hearing, they either aren’t necessary in the cockpit with a headset or, in some cases, don’t work at all because cockpit noise overloads them. In almost all hearing-loss situations, an aircraft-oriented hearing system that features devices that are actually inserted into the ears cures the problem. The noise is blocked out, and the desired auditory inputs are clearly heard. This is especially true when custom earpieces are molded to the individual ears so that headset sounds are directed into the ear channel with no unwanted disruptions. Deaf pilots must obtain a SODA to get their medical certificate, and it will carry the limitation, “Not valid where radio use is required.”

Amputations: There are pilots flying with no arms. Some with no legs. Pilots with single leg amputations are relatively common. Lots of pilot are flying with arm amputations. Most amputees are flying with SODAs on their medical certificates, but they are flying. A limb amputation is not even close to being an insurmountable barrier.

Blood pressure: The basic FAA maximum limits are 155 systolic over 95 diastolic. Most blood pressure medications are allowed by the FAA.

A fear of heights, called acrophobia, is so common among pilots it's almost laughable.Medical/mental disqualifiers: There are, indeed, medical and mental conditions that are clear disqualifiers. These conditions include a personality disorder manifested by overt acts, a psychosis, substance abuse, epilepsy, an unexplained disturbance of consciousness, myocardial infarction, angina pectoris, and diabetes mellitus requiring hypoglycemic medications.

As with everything else, many of the conditions can be treated and result in a special issuance. An aviation medical examiner (AME) analyzes the problem and presents it to the FAA higher ups who most often grant a conditional approval.

Weight and height

Barriers to flyingAircraft are designed around an FAA-standard pilot weight of 170 pounds, with an unofficially assumed height somewhere between about 5 feet, 5 inches and 6 feet, 1 inch tall. Today 170-pound pilots are in the minority and there are a lot of pilots below the bottom of the height average and a lot well taller than six feet. For those individuals, some cockpit designs can work against them.

Weights and heights are most noticeable when a 275-pound, 6-foot-2-inch pilot tries to squirm into most general aviation trainers. On newer trainers, neither width nor height are a problem because modern cockpits such as that of the Diamond DA40 approach 44 inches in width. However, the Cessna 172 and its 40-inch-wide cockpit and the Piper PA–28 at 40 to 42 inches still dominate the flight training scene. And therein lies the question for a prospective pilot: Will they fit in the airplane to be used in training?

Simply knowing someone’s height and weight doesn’t tell the whole story. Two individuals of exactly the same height can have greatly varying leg length and sitting height. Further confusing the issue is that, as the leg dimension grows longer, the position of the knee between the foot and hip can differ as well. So, two pilots of exactly the same height and inseam dimension may find that one fits in the cockpit OK but the other can’t get his knees under the panel comfortably. Or maybe not at all.

Weight is a more distinct number. As a pilot edges closer to 300 pounds, the number of aircraft that can carry him or her, an instructor, and fuel decreases in number. The center of gravity also becomes a concern.

The only positive way prospective pilots will know for sure how comfortable they are going to be—or if they’ll fit—in a given trainer is to go try it on for size. Within logical limits, there are trainers out there that will fit and carry every person wanting to fly. However, the only way to confirm that is to take a trip to the airport, talk to the flight school operator, and climb on board the airplane.

Fear of heights

A fear of heights, called acrophobia, is so common among pilots that it’s almost laughable. Many won’t climb a ladder to clean their gutters or can’t walk to the rim of the Grand Canyon, but they think nothing of flying into remote mountain strips or doing aerobatics. Acrophobia doesn’t seem to exist in a cockpit. It does no good to ask why not. It just doesn’t. Some things in life we’re not supposed to understand, and fear of heights seems to be one of them.

Flying is only for professionals

There’s a tendency to think that “normal folk” can’t—or shouldn’t—fly, when nothing could be further from the truth. First, even airline pilots start as beginners. There is no God-given trait that makes one person more capable of being a pilot than the next one. It all comes down to training, and after the training, building on the experience gained thereafter.

There are almost no real barriers

Where there is a will there is a way. Don’t assume you can’t learn to fly. If you make the effort to do so, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.


Budd Davisson

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S–2A.

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