Groups that represent recreational pilots want to eliminate a Federal Aviation Administration requirement for regular medical exams, a change that is being opposed by a group that sets medical standards for the aviation community.
If the change were made, recreational pilots’ only medical requirements would be the same as for their drivers’ licenses, although they would still be required to take regular flight certification tests.
That’s not enough, says Jeff Sventek, executive director of the Aerospace Medical Association. The group sets medical standards for the aviation community. Its members, about 23,000 physicians, provide funding, and it recommends pilot medical standards to the FAA. The members also test pilots. Sventek is a retired Air Force aerospace physiologist who trained Air Force crews.
The change is being sought by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association, groups composed of private pilots. They are seeking support in the House and Senate, and have backing from 117 House members and about a dozen Senators, according to AOPA. Many of the backers, including the authors of the legislation, are themselves private pilots. Under the applicable FAA designation, recreational pilots can fly smaller sport aircraft with one or two engines and can carry family members or friends, but cannot fly for hire.
Under current law, every two to five years, with the frequency increasing at age 40, such pilots must undergo a routine medical examination by a certified aviation medical examiner.
The proposed change would expand the existing sport pilot designation, already exempt, to include recreational pilots.
“As we age, we begin developing chronic conditions that can be identified by a good medical exam,” Sventek said. “Some of these chronic conditions –diabetes, dementia, etc., — when identified by a competent physician, should be grounds for removing a pilot from the cockpit.
“If a physician does not ground these pilots, many of them will continue to fly and will be a safety hazard to themselves, their passengers, and the ground-based population they are flying over,” he said.
Ten years ago the medical exam requirement was eliminated for sport pilots, Sventek said, and “there has not been a significant number of mishaps in that group. But the problem is that since they removed all medical oversight, we’re not sure that mishaps are being reported. The only way we would know would be if during an accident investigation, a medical assessment was done.”
Rob Hackman, vice president of regulatory affairs for AOPA, said the proposed elimination of the medical exam requirement would be accompanied by an educational component so that pilots can accurately assess their own medical conditions prior to each flight. He noted that glider and balloon pilots can already fly without a third class medical examination.
General aviation safety relies on a system that includes pilot certification requirements, maintenance requirements, air traffic control and other components, Hackman said. Yet “some folks say that without one visit to the doctor, the system may not be as safe.” The exams are cursory, he said.
Importantly, recreational pilots must take a flight test with a flight instructor, certified by the FAA, every two years. “You would be hard pressed to find another recreational activity that is more controlled than general aviation,” said AOPA spokeswoman Katie Pribyl.
Sventek said self-assessment provides pilots with knowledge of their medical conditions, and flight testing is of course valuable. But he wonders who is going to ground a pilot who faces potential medical challenges.
“I’ve seen pilots conduct a self-assessment and recognize they probably should not fly, but the drive to go fly overpowers their self-assessment and they fly anyway,” he said.
Canada has a designation for recreational pilots with a less rigorous medical requirement. “That is what we thought we were moving toward,” Sventek said. “There is room for discussion. Our hope would be that cooler heads prevail and that we all sit down and discuss the pros and cons of making changes to the medical certification process and see what adjustments could be made.”