On the mend: Changes in medicals a step in the right direction

Do you believe me when I write that among the top publications I receive, the Federal Air Surgeon’s Medical Bulletin is not one of those that regularly receive high priority?

Believe me, I don’t read this 12-page quarterly bulletin on an even irregular basis.

However, the other day I saw a copy at the office and for some reason started reading it. I must have been pretty bored or out of other reading material. Or maybe fate had a hand in getting me to pick up this particular issue.

For years I’ve made mention that medicals for general aviation pilots need a few changes. If they aren’t to be completely eliminated, they should be good for a longer period of time. For those who have had major surgeries – like my own heart bypass operation nearly 10 years ago – the process to get a renewal needs to be simplified and made far less stressful.

Well, in reading the Federal Air Surgeon Medical Bulletin for the second quarter of 2006, I learned that the agency is planning to designate some Aviation Medical Examiners as Super AMEs who would be authorized to “make initial special issuance or waiver decisions,” according to the column written by Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Fred Tilton.

He points out this will take a while because the agency has to make regulatory changes before such authority can be delegated. The appropriate rulemaking notice will be published in the Federal register. But this is one more step in the right direction.

Already the Federal Air Surgeon’s office has allowed medical certificates to be good for longer periods for many pilots, and over the last decade more and more special issuances have been issued in cases where earlier there was no hope for a person to fly legally. Now, there are people with all kinds of organ replacements getting medical certificates. Ailments that can be treated with certain medications no longer permanently bar legal flight or require an individual to go the Sport Pilot route.

Medicine has made tremendous strides in the last 25 to 50 years. As evidence of that fact I point out that my quadruple bypass surgery would have left me incapacitated at best or dead at worst in my parents’ generation. Today, I lead a full and active life after having suffered angina, undergone the open-heart surgery and spent less than three weeks convalescing. I know others who have experienced far worse medical problems than mine who are not only living life to the fullest but, due to the much more enlightened attitude of the Federal Air Surgeon’s office, are back in the air.

I applaud these excellent steps in recognizing the positive changes in medicine over the last few decades.

But I want more!

For general aviation pilots who fly for their own pleasure or business, carrying only themselves or their family or friends, I think medicine has advanced to a point where such a person should be able to operate his or her airplane without going through the trouble and expense of a medical exam to receive a special document. If a person is healthy enough to drive a car, that same person should be eligible to operate a light plane without any additional medical licensing requirements.

As has been said time and time again, the only thing a medical certificate proves is that you were alive at the time of the exam. It doesn’t guarantee you are going to last beyond the doctor’s office, let alone the one or two or three years that the certificate is valid.

The instances of a person becoming incapacitated in an airplane because of a medical problem and ending in a crash are few and far between. I think there are far fewer medical emergencies for pilots than individuals driving down a freeway. And, when someone in a car suffers a heart attack or stroke or other incident that incapacitates that person, there are far more people in danger than when that same person has the same problem in a Cessna 152.

So, Dr. Tilton, I appreciate your efforts. I’ll applaud you even louder when you and others in the aviation medical field successfully bring the industry into the 21st Century.

Dave Sclair was co-publisher of General Aviation News from 1970-2000.

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