When the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) banded together to request the FAA to exempt certain recreational and private pilots from third-class medical requirements, thus allowing expanded use of a driver's license as evidence of medical fitness to fly, it reopened the issue of whether FAA medicals do anything at all to promote flight safety. Some who believe that the FAA medical process actually hinders safety because it promotes an adversarial relationship between the FAA and pilots. Others believe the resources the FAA devotes to medical certification could be put to better use elsewhere.
Some pilots may know individuals who have failed to address a medical issue in order to avoid creating an evidence trail the FAA might pick up. Accident investigations occasionally include autopsy evidence of medical conditions or prescription drug use not reported on FAA medical applications, which wouldn't have come to light except for the accident, and had no provable relationship to the accident.
EAA and AOPA note that we now have a body of evidence gathered over the five years that sport pilots have been allowed to fly using a driver's license as evidence of medical qualification that shows no adverse effect on safety. For years before the sport pilot category was created, advocates of eliminating FAA medicals pointed to glider pilot operations for evidence that operating without an FAA medical exam was inherently safe.
Rather than calling for total elimination of the third-class medical certificate, EAA/AOPA asked for an exemption allowing use of a driver's license to be expanded to include certain aircraft outside of the sport category. Fixed-wing aircraft would be single-engine, fixed-gear, VFR/day, up to 180 horsepower, up to four seats but carrying only one passenger. Pilots would have to pass a medical education course.
Since the EAA/AOPA initiative doesn't apply to pilots flying in IFR conditions, or operating high-performance or multi-engine aircraft, any medical implications in these recently concluded accident investigations should be irrelevant to the FAA. It also should be noted that the agency did, in the final analysis, issue certificates declaring these pilots medically fit to fly. Holding FAA medical certificates did nothing to stop these pilots from having these accidents.
On April 27, 2010, a Beech 58 crashed in the Daniel Boone National Forest near Bear Branch, Ky. The airplane had been on an IFR flight from the Frederick Municipal Airport (FDK), Frederick, Md., to the Olive Branch Airport (OLV), Olive Branch, Miss. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed. The pilot and passenger were killed.
The flight was being handled by Indianapolis Center. The pilot requested a climb due to weather. The airplane was cleared to 12,000 feet. About 10 minutes later, the pilot reported problems with the airplane's airspeed indicator, and requested a lower altitude. The pilot continued reporting airspeed problems during his descent. The last communication from the pilot was, "Just went down like an absolute rock—don't know what happened." The last radar contact showed the airplane around 5,000 feet. The Civil Air Patrol was notified of a possible downed airplane, and a search started. Local residents notified police that they located a crashed airplane on a hillside. A search crew was able to reach the wreckage in a dense forest.
Witnesses who live at the bottom of the hill where the airplane crashed reported they first heard the airplane flying south, and then heard it flying north. As the airplane flew behind their house over the hill, a loud noise similar to a big tree falling was heard. The sound of the engines stopped at that moment. The witnesses said the weather consisted of extremely low clouds, mist and rain.
The pilot, age 68, held a commercial certificate with ratings for single-engine land, multi-engine airplane land, and instrument airplane. He had a special-issuance third-class medical certificate valid through November 2011. The pilot's logbook showed 1,545 total hours, with 104 hours in the accident airplane, and 14 hours on instruments.
Weather data identified the freezing level in the area as 6,000 feet with the probability of icing conditions in clouds and precipitation. The probability of icing was greatest between 9,000 and 11,000 feet. National Weather Service radar depicted a band of echoes over the route of flight, some of which indicated wet snow near the freezing level. Numerous pilot reports indicated light to moderate rime to mixed icing conditions from 5,000 to 15,000 feet over the area.
Investigation found nothing wrong with the engines, instruments or airplane systems. Evidence of fuel was observed in the fuel system.
The FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute conducted toxicology testing on specimens from the pilot. No alcohol use was detected. However, the use of several drugs was detected. These were chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine, irbesartan, metoprolol and naproxen.
Chlorpheniramine is often used to treat hay fever and common colds. Diphenhydramine is used for treating airway irritation, motion sickness and early Parkinsonian syndrome. Irbesartan is used to treat high-blood pressure and kidney disease caused by diabetes. Metoprolol is used to treat high-blood pressure and also to prevent angina (chest pain). Naproxen is used to treat pain and swelling caused by arthritis and gout.
The pilot had previously noted the use of metoprolol, irbesartan and naproxen, as well as a history of "hay fever or allergy" and the use of loratadine on applications for FAA medicals, but had not noted the use of chlorpheniramine or diphenhydramine.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's improper in-flight planning/decision, his continued flight into adverse weather (icing conditions), and failure to maintain an adequate airspeed during the emergency descent.
On November 29, 2009, a Piper PA-32RT-300 was substantially damaged during landing at Memphis International Airport (MEM), Memphis, Tenn. The private pilot was fatally injured, and three passengers received serious injuries. IFR conditions prevailed, and the IFR flight plan was filed for the flight, which originated at the Greenbrier Valley Airport (LWB), Lewisburg, W. Va.
According to the FAA, the airplane entered Memphis Approach airspace at an altitude of 4,000 feet and was later cleared to 3,000 feet. The pilot was given an intercept heading and subsequently cleared for the ILS 18L approach at MEM. The airplane turned final at 3,000 feet, then was cleared to 2,000 feet. The airplane picked up the centerline for the 18L localizer, and then began to drift to the left.
When the airplane was about 5 nm from the end of the runway, it began a descent from 1,900 feet, while remaining left of the localizer. When it was 3.6 nm from the end of the runway, it was down to 900 feet MSL (approximately 560 feet AGL), which was below the glideslope. It remained left of centerline.
The controller issued a low-altitude alert and current altimeter setting. The pilot responded, "Roger, 43C, sorry about that." The airplane began to climb and turned toward the localizer, but then drifted left again. The airplane climbed to 1,300 feet, then went down to 900 feet again. The controller radioed, "Low- altitude alert, I show you indicating 1,000 feet, altimeter setting 29.92." The pilot responded "Roger, ah, 29." That was the last transmission from the pilot."
Radar data indicated the airplane then climbed to 1,200 feet, during which the groundspeed decreased from 95 knots to 83 knots. The airplane then began a right descending turn toward the southwest. The groundspeed continued to decrease to 74 knots while in the turn. The airplane briefly became established on a level heading before making a left turn to 158 degrees. The groundspeed decreased further to 63 knots, at an altitude of 500 feet. The last radar hit indicated a heading of 158 degrees, at an altitude of 200 feet and an airspeed of 63 knots. The airplane impacted a grass area 10 degrees west of the centerline and 1.25 nm from the end of runway 18L.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land and instrument airplane. His most recent third-class medical certificate was issued on December 18, 2007. At that time, he reported 1,700 hours of total flight experience.
The FAA conducted toxicological testing on the pilot. The drug clonazepam was detected. Also detected was marijuana. The pilot's FAA medical records documented a history of chronic active hepatitis C, annual letters from 2005 until December 5, 2008, from the pilot's gastroenterologist documenting that the pilot was doing well and not taking any medications, and Authorizations for Special Issuance of Medical Certificates, most recently issued for a six-year period beginning in 2005. A letter dated March 9, 2009, to the pilot from the Manager of the FAA Aerospace Medical Certification Division noted, in part, "Our review of your medical records has established that you are eligible for a third-class medical certificate. Your Authorization for Special Issuance is no longer necessary. Therefore, no further follow-up reports will be required unless you experience adverse changes in your medical status. Because of your histroy of hepatitis C, operation of airplane is prohibited at any time new symptoms or adverse changes occur or any time medication and/or treatment is required." The pilot's application for a medical certificate on December 4, 2006, and his most recent application on December 18, 2007, each noted "No" in response to "Do you currently use any medication?" Personal records from the pilot's gastroenterologist noted a stage 4 liver biopsy in 2000, the use of clonazepam 1 mg at bedtime as needed for sleep since at least October 2006, and of modafinil 200 mg once or twice a day since at least June 2008, and symptoms of lethargy noted in January 2009.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's failure to execute a timely missed approach and subsequent failure to maintain aircraft control, after he was unable to establish the airplane on the instrument approach. The Safety Board was unable to conclude that the pilot was impaired due to his medical condition and/or medication use.