On July 15, general aviation changed forever.
That’s when President Barack Obama signed into law an FAA authorization extension that includes third class medical reform.
“Medical reforms are now the law, and that’s a big win for general aviation,” said Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President Mark Baker.
“This is the most significant legislative victory for general aviation in decades.”
“These reforms will provide relief to hundreds of thousands of pilots from an outdated, costly, and unnecessarily burdensome system,” he continued. “It will help pilots save time, money, and frustration.”
“What a great moment for recreational aviators who have been burdened with unnecessary regulations and expense with regard to medical certification,” said Jack J. Pelton, Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) CEO/Chairman. “There have been doubters who were skeptical that this would become reality, but there were many more pilots who saw this as the most important advocacy effort EAA has pursued in years.”
Both Baker and Pelton noted it has taken “years of commitment and hard work to make these reforms a reality.”
It was four years ago, in 2012, when AOPA and EAA petitioned the FAA for changes to the third class medical.
Intense lobbying by those GA advocacy groups led to little action on the FAA’s part, but a lot of support in Congress.
Led by Senator James Inhofe, who sponsored the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 1 and 2, medical reform was included in several bills in the Senate, while House members Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) championed the reforms in the House.
At one point third class medical reform was even attached to a defense spending bill, but didn’t make it through the process.
But this time it made it all the way in a bill that temporarily extends the FAA authorization.
And while the authorization only keeps the FAA running through 2017, the medical reforms are permanent.
The legislation gives the FAA 180 days to enact new regulations. Unfortunately, there’s no immediate consequence if the agency doesn’t meet that deadline, according to GA advocates.
However, under the new law, if the FAA does not issue regulations within one year from July 15, 2016, the date the President signed the bill into law, then it cannot take enforcement action against a pilot for not holding a valid third class medical certificate as long as the pilot makes a good faith effort to comply with the legislation.
In other words, once the legislation has been enacted, pilots will be able to fly under its provisions within one year — less if the rulemaking is completed more quickly, according to AOPA officials.
In the meantime, pilots need to continue to comply with the current medical certification requirements in order to fly.
“The reforms are now law and that means we’re in the home stretch when it comes to getting more pilots flying without compelling them to repeatedly go through the expensive and burdensome medical certification process,” said Baker. “But there’s more work to do to ensure that the law is translated into regulations that make sense and work in the real world.”
What’s are the reforms?
Under the reforms, pilots who have held a valid medical certificate any time in the decade prior to July 15, 2016, may not need to take another FAA medical exam. The 10-year period applies to both regular and special issuance medicals.
Pilots whose most recent medical certificate was revoked, suspended, withdrawn, or denied will need to obtain a new medical certificate before they can operate under the reforms.
After meeting the initial requirements to fly under the reforms, pilots will need to visit a state-licensed physician — not an Aviation Medical Examiner — at least once every four years and provide an FAA-developed checklist of issues to be discussed during the visit. Both you and your physician will need to sign the checklist saying that you discussed the items on it. You will then need to make a note of the visit and include the checklist in your logbook.
You do not need to report the outcome of the visit or file any paperwork with the FAA unless you are specifically requested to do so.
You also must take a free online course on aeromedical factors every two years, which will be offered through the AOPA Air Safety Institute.
Pilots who have never held an FAA medical certificate will need to go through the medical certification process only once. Even pilots who have a medical condition that requires a special issuance medical certificate will only have to go through the process once in most cases.
“Under the old system, pilots flying on a special issuance medical were often expected to repeat the process year after year. They might have to send reams of documentation to the FAA for evaluation, repeat expensive and medically unnecessary tests for health conditions that are unchanged, and spend weeks or months grounded while they wait for the FAA to review their file,” said Baker. “These reforms put decisions about medical care back into the hands of pilots and their personal physicians, people who know them well and have an ongoing interest in their health and wellbeing.”
Pilots flying under the new rules will be allowed to operate aircraft that weigh up to 6,000 pounds, carry up to five passengers, plus the pilot in command, fly at altitudes below 18,000 feet, and at speeds of up to 250 knots. Pilots, if appropriately rated, can fly VFR or IFR in qualified aircraft.
The new rules include twin-engine aircraft, as long as the plane meets the definition of a covered aircraft.
Want to fly a plane that carries more than five passengers or weighs more than 6,000 pounds?
You’ll need to keep going through the third class medical process. That means visiting an AME for your medical exam and renewing your medical certificate as needed.
What happened to the driver’s license medical?
While the initial petition for reform asked for a driver’s license medical, similar to the sport pilot rules, compromises had to be made to get the legislation through Congress.
AOPA officials, who say they have been working to reform the medical process for decades, noted they “ran into roadblocks at every turn,” when they tried to expand the driver’s license medical to more pilots.
“The FAA did not respond to our 2012 petition, and while the agency did initiate rulemaking, that process quickly stalled and it became clear that the regulatory path was blocked,” officials noted in a FAQ section on the association’s website.
“In the legislative process that followed, some lawmakers made it absolutely clear that they would not support legislation that completely eliminated the third class medical or depended on a driver’s license medical standard. The compromises we arrived at represent the very best deal we could get for pilots while winning sufficient support in Congress to keep the legislation alive. We recognize that not every pilot who was hoping for relief will get it. Nevertheless, this legislation will help thousands of pilots, and that’s worth doing.”
The good news
The new legislation actually expands the number of pilots and aircraft who will be eligible to fly under third class medical reforms, compared to the initial petition in 2012.
What if my medical expires before the law takes effect?
If your medical certificate expires before the new regulations take effect, you may choose to renew it in order to keep flying.
Whether or not you choose to renew your medical certificate to cover the gap period, you will be allowed to fly as soon as the new rules take effect, provided your medical expired within the 10-year window preceding enactment of the legislation.
But want if your medical becomes more than 10 years old before the law takes effect?
The clock on the 10-year lookback starts the day the legislation is enacted, not when its provisions take effect, which could be up to one year later. So, the date the legislation becomes law — July 15, 2016 — is the date that counts when it comes to determining whether your certificate was valid within the 10-year window.
If the last time you held a valid medical was more than 10 years, you will need to go through the medical certification process one more time in order to fly under the new regulations.