Ever go to a car show and marvel at the British sports cars of our youth? MGs and Triumphs, how small they look now! How could I ever fit? Answer: We were slimmer then. After decades of fast food, career stress, no time to exercise and skimping on healthy foods, we are a nation heavier than before.
And now, your FAA medical will apparently include the assumption of sleep apnea based on body mass index (BMI.) Not to diminish apnea’s serious medical consequences, this is a heavy wet blanket for GA. It’s like a bad dream, isn’t it?
A BMI above 40 would mean a sleep study (at your expense) to detect obstruction of breathing during sleep. It is associated with weight gain and the FAA says it’s universal above BMI 40 — for instance, someone 5’10” weighing 278.
It’s not that we weren’t warned! Some years back, the NTSB began focusing on sleep issues. Now, along with cell phones, technology distractions and automation issues, fatigue and work schedules/duty times are big doings.
As if to underscore this, the Dec. 1 New York commuter train crash implicated a tired engineer. Coming off straight tracks along the Hudson River, he hit the big curve into town at 83 mph — nearly three times the speed limit. The driver, just recently shifted to early morning work, said he was “zoned out” when the 5:54 from Poughkeepsie crashed at 7:20 a.m., killing four.
I don’t doubt that these are important transportation issues. Heck, anyone who has worked as a commuter airline or corporate pilot knows — and probably doesn’t talk about it outside the profession. But I see this as mostly a regulatory matter for pro pilots, not Average Joes.
Average pilots usually “don’t have to go.” (Whether they have the self-awareness to declare themselves unfit to fly is another issue.) I will admit many of us are in denial about weight and sleep apnea. But is this cause for a general indictment of pilots who don’t fly a schedule or haul paying passengers?
What really worries me is FAA’s announced intention to gradually move the BMI limit down to 30, for instance your 5’10″, 209-pound aviator. That, they say, will subject 120,000 pilots to the sleep study requirement. And that’s a $4,000 cost to fly, last time I checked.
Maybe it’s because my BMI is 34. (Interesting, all these aviation writers discussing their weight, huh?) I really put it on during 25-30 years of stress in the PR/media relations world. I’m proud now to lose some weight in retirement. We are all waking up to the medical threat. That’s good.
But what’s the near-term effect on non-professional pilots? Sure, I knew military flyers told to slim down or be grounded. At stake was their job. Member of the Civil Air Patrol got similar orders from the Air Force “if they wanted to wear the uniform.” (A blazer-and-slacks alternative was made available.)
But what does a typical private pilot have?
The instant answer would be a new Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) or eligible old Cub or Aeronca. But Catch-22! There are often payload issues with these 1,220- to 1,320-pound airplanes. The FAA-spec 170-pound pilot hardly exists anymore, except for teenagers. A crew of two may well severely test the payload limits of these no-medical rides.
Sure, many new LSAs boast broader cabins than traditional spam cans. But in aviation, weight is the unforgiving constant.
And soon, the FAA medical will be as unforgiving as an LSA weight and balance. The affected can always forgo a medical and fly LSAs solo, but what about the checkout? (Better find a light CFI!) And in many LSAs, you’ll also battle the weight of extra bells and whistles everyone’s buying. Today’s LSA may NOT be our get-out-of-jail card.
The FAA’s dictate on sleep is a nightmare — a requirement on the suspicion of a diagnosis, a threat to private flying and pilot recruitment. And there may be no easy alternative. Looks like a big diet could be in our future (possibly trimming thousands who will have to play “$4,000 or your license” with the FAA.) I hope we, as an industry, don’t “lose too much!”
All this damages the valuable selling point that “flying is something you can do for a lifetime.” Since most of us gain weight with age, the rule may eliminate or deter an entire customer group for an embarrassing personal reason. Nice sales appeal! And all this potentially targets today’s established, middle-aged and older pilot — the financially qualified veteran flyer who is keeping our part of GA going right now.
I don’t hold out too much hope for a “driver’s license medical” in this FAA regulatory environment, especially when NTSB rest issues are trickling down to personal flying. It’s another small nail in the coffin of GA — unless we can get the FAA to let our LSAs gain weight!
Sound like a fair trade?
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