Waiting for a letter from OKC to fly again?

Why does it take so long to get a special issuance? It’s not as bad as it was a few years ago, but if you are grounded waiting to hear from the FAA doctors in Oklahoma City about your special issuance, the waiting can seem interminable.

But if you take a peek at the inner workings of the FAA’s Medical Certification Office, it might help you understand why it takes so long.

“The reality is certification cases take one hour,” said Dr. Warren Silberman, director of the Airman Certification Branch of the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) in OKC.

An hour? Then you should have your certification in a flash, right? Not so fast, Silberman said. “You have to realize that we have 30,000 special issuances — that’s more than some countries have airmen,” he said.

And as the pilot population ages, it develops more and more medical problems, he said, noting, “I’ve got a couple of waivers myself.”

He said the average processing time is less than 30 days, noting that if it takes longer than that, it’s often the pilots’ fault. They don’t send the proper documentation to OKC or leave out a report that was specifically requested by the FAA.

“If you don’t take your life in your own hands and get everything to Oklahoma City, then I’m not going to take the heat for you,” Silberman warned. “Do not try to skirt the issue — get what we asked you to get.”

Another incentive not to be the pilot who gets a letter telling him that he forgot some critical information: “Those often go to the bottom of the pile,” Silberman warned.

Your AME also could be the reason for the delay. Is he too willing to pass decisions on to OKC that he could be making in his office? If he is, get a new AME (see “Is it time to fire your AME?“).

But the main reason for the delays is the day-to-day reality of running the certification office.

“My division is manpower dependent,” Silberman said. So when one his doctors died last August — “a one-of-a-kind guy” who handled 21 cases a day — he was not replaced until March. That created a backlog of the 21 cases he did a day multiplied by the number of days the post was empty, he explained.

Then came the training period until the new doctor could get up to speed. Silberman estimates it takes up to two years to train an examiner.

On top of that, another doctor who was handling 35 cases a day retired, creating the need to hire and train yet another doctor, he said.

“Our backlog waxes and wanes depending on labor,” he said. “Our staff is that thin that one person can affect the backlog creeping up.”

Even with all the turmoil in the staffing in the last year, however, the office was still able to stay with the 30-day average, noted Dr. Fred Tilton, Federal Air Surgeon.

Should you worry about getting denied?

Less than .02% of pilots get a final denial, according to Tilton.

“More people are eligible to fly now than 20 years ago,” he noted. “Unfortunately, however, there are still some people who just are not safe to fly.”

Tilton noted that pilots with special issuances actually have less accidents than other pilots. “We’re very careful who we give a waiver to,” he said. “We want to make sure the person is safe to fly.”


  1. Charles A. Jensen says

    I read with interest your article about “Waiting to fly again.” I had a pacemaker installed in April of last year and just now have requested my file be sent to the Flight Surgeon after denials from OK City. I am in excellent health with no lingering health concerns. My cardiologist says he would fly with me anytime and feels I am a lower risk than most pilots who have not been throroughly evaluated by a physician.
    The article reminds me of someone who would attempt to unlock a door continually by rattling the knob without looking for the key or going through another door. OK City medical department seems mired in their own processes without a way to make it better. Their key components to success in my opinion are AME’s themselves. Most of which are reluctant to step out and issue certificates aware of the mighty hand of the FAA – more than willing to strike them down. The authority given to the AME’s is so limited you have to ask if it is worth the risk to issue non routine medicals and waivers. Until delegation of authority is extensively given to the AME’s, change will not occur within the system and the delays in OK City issuance will become even more backlog.
    We pilots have a responsibility to hold the FAA responsible for their actions and inactions. We should write our Congressional members and demand a better way of doing business. We must work at providing timely and accurate documentation when requested, and yes, we should not attempt to fly when their is self doubt about our ability to do so safely.

    Charles Jensen

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