I could lose sleep over this!

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?



© Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved


  1. Mack says

    How about outright sleep deprivation?

    Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, comes to mind.

    With the current doctor, fad medicine rules, not human dedication and perseverance!

    It crushes the human spirit, and that’s the only thing we really have to cling to!

  2. KW says

    Until someone can show a BENEFIT to the new proposal, there is no valid reason to support it.

    If it is put into place, it will show that the FAA thinks that they have more money than they can legitimately use, and are coming up with new and creative ways to spend it.

  3. vaughn price says

    Thanks Mooney, I’m 83 with 15000 general aviation hours I laid off 45 years and did not lose much proficiency. never wrecked an airplane, and had fifteen or so dead stick landings. Rule #1 never stop learning. Rule #2 do on purpose stall landings, even in a 4 engine jet. P.S. I have flown 139 different Makes & Models from 1924 #1 Travelair 2000 to 749 Connie, No record, but its getting up there on my own. No military, No GI Bill, and no Airline

  4. J scott says

    This is all about divide and conquer. That’s why the FAA wants to start with a BMI of 40, then pare it down to 30. During that time, the “Flight Surgeon” will have a revelation that people of all sizes can have OSA (true). All pilots will be required to have sleep studies. We can either fight this silliness now as a group now, or you can sit on the sidelines and say it doesn’t affect me…. yet. But eventually, it will.

  5. says

    If I have said it once I have said it a hundred times- J.J. as in Job Justification. Some overpaid, underworked desk jocky trying to justify his/her position by looking for a problem where none exists. Just imagine how safe we all will be when there are no more pesky little airplanes flying around. Maybe some day the desk jockies will realize that all the people driving big planes started out driving little planes.

  6. Tim Fountain says

    I agree with all that has been said, and also want to add a couple of points:

    1. I don’t understand why the FAA doesn’t start (if they really must) with professional pilots, as opposed to private pilots. Why not go after the pilots with class 1 or 2 medicals, and leave the private class 3 medicals alone? After all the professional pilots are entrusted with the lives of many more people than a private. Also I suspect that a professional pilot would have the help and support of their company, healthcare provider and union to help with any OSA study/remediation costs.

    2. If the class 3 medical were to go away (in favor of self certification and a drivers license) then I would probably go that route and give up flying IFR.

    BTW I am not obese as defined by BMI (27). I am very disappointed with AOPA in their response to this latest crisis and deafened by their silence.

    Finally 2014 will be another challenging year, with this OSA issue and user fees once again back on the table and seemingly gaining bipartisan support. The days of GA are truly numbered.

  7. Jim Hackman says

    Drew, I know this is serious business but I had to laugh. It’s not just the MG-TD that I can’t fit in. A meticulously restored Taylorcraft was on the ramp. The owner offered the opportunity to climb in. Years of sitting in the sun must have shrunk it some. I gave dual in these (no rt brakes!) and now I can’t seem to get the wheel all the way back.
    Jim Hackman Tempe, AZ

    • Drew Steketee says

      Jim: I know what you mean! That’s why I picked the Aeronca (L-16B) in my dotage — bigger cabin area (than Cub), solo from the front.

      I took my first ten hours in a BC-65 Taylorcraft, so I remember it well. It was claustrophic to me, but (at age 16) it was probably the small windows that got me. -ds

  8. says

    Everyone seems to barter with the FAA on this issue. I will give you the witch-hunt for sleep apnea if you raise the LSA weight limit. Fact is, only .25% of accidents over a 10 year period (AOPA) can be traces to medical issues (all medical issues). My question is, why is the government spending money on an issue that has a low statistical probability (while noting health education is important)? Sadly, the FAA doesn’t have to ask permission to change policy and we have let them get away with it.

    Great point from the author, “All this damages the valuable selling point that flying is something you can do for a lifetime.” If I’m spending my expendable income and realize my time in aviation could be limited, it’s a concern. I always learn something when reading these articles, keep up the great work!

  9. Jeff says

    To me it is plain and simple. Governments, Federal, State and local just want general aviation to go away.
    They see no need for it, after all 99.999% of all passenger travel is conducted by commercial carriers and freight by large air freight outfits. So why even have general aviation?
    The land the small general aviation airports are on is valuable for commercial purposes.
    Those small planes are noisy and pesky like flies, lets get rid of them.
    How many airport commissions even have a pilot on the board? I would bet not many.
    The FAA is run by political appointees that have no clue.
    Under them is another set of pencil pushers, and under them are the real rule makers. So if in this case the Flight Surgeon says we need a new rule, who is going to oppose him? Not his boss, he has no clue.
    If anyone doesn’t think that the FAA wouldn’t like GA to go away just look at this BMI decision and ADS-B. Look at the city council of Santa Monica trying to shut down the airport there.
    Now there are some fine folks at the FAA, I met one once! Some want GA to survive, but it seems like not many.
    Congress needs to step in. Oh wait a minute, they already do nothing so don’t expect much there.

    Sorry to be so cynical but our whole system of government is failing GA.

  10. Art Johns says

    I have a BMI of 27.5 and mild (5′ 11″ 198#) sleep apnea. The average person stops breathing while asleep about 5 times. I stop breathing about 9 times an hour. With the CPAP machine (yes, I had two sleep studies over the years), I stop breathing 8 times per hour. The CPAP doesn’t seem to be doing me that much good, but it does help eliminate daytime sleepiness and that’s where a pilot may get sleepy in flight. I usually limit my flights to two hours for bathroom breaks anyway, so if I need any sleep, I can doze after I land. But getting sleepy in flight is very rare. As we age it is probably a good idea to take another pilot along that can relieve you so you can doze off if you have to. I’m 69 and made a rule for myself to only fly with an instructor or another experienced pilot. Never alone.

  11. mooney says

    What do the safety statistics show? Accidents caused by pilots going to sleep vs, accidents caused by arrival and departure stalls, flight into IMC without proper certification, fuel mis-management, and so on. If you want to reduce accidents, the option is $4,000 on an annual sleep study or $300 of real dual flight instruction annually with a focus on airwork , emergency procedures and such basics as to why it is important to check for water in the fuel. Every GA pilot knows the answer to this one. The FAA has the data, they simply will not show it; either they are too lazy to do the empirical research or they have done so and it doesn’t jibe with what they want tp show. Sounds like a good AOPA project.

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