Going Direct: I Was So Wrong…Partially

My Going Direct column recently outlined my big misgivings about the new BasicMed medical certification regulations. I promise I’ll get to the part where I admit I was wrong, but before I do, let me briefly sum up what I said and get into some of the real-world issues we’re facing now that BasicMed is up and running.

In my piece in the May Issue, I weighed in that BasicMed was a poor substitute for the Sport Pilot “driver’s license” medical route that just requires you to have a valid state-issued driver’s license as proof that you’re fit to fly. BasicMed, in contrast, requires a visit to the doctor’s office to get a medical checkup that’s essentially the same as the checkup your aviation medical examiner (AME) would give you were you to apply for an old-school medical. Moreover, there’s an online test you take before the FAA will give its final blessing.

So BasicMed isn’t what was promised to us at all. It’s not a driver’s license medical but a relaxed form of conventional FAA medical certification. I think it’s important that we make that distinction, so we all know what the real pros and cons to the new process are.

With Sport Pilot medical certification-lite, via the driver’s license, you don’t certify anything to the FAA, apart from the pledge we take to pronounce ourselves fit to fly each and every time we climb into an airplane to go skyward.

BasicMed, on the other hand, requires that pilots sign and certify to the FAA that every one of the many statements you make on your medical application is true and accurate, and that it doesn’t leave anything out. You need to account for your non-routine visits to doctors’ offices and you need to list all of your medications and health conditions, many of which are disqualifying.

Those are all bum deals compared to the Sport Pilot route, which essentially lets you evaluate yourself before, during and after you go flying. No signing your name certifying anything, apart from what you had to share with the DMV, which here in Texas isn’t much.

Since then, I’ve gotten several emails from readers upset about my stance on BasicMed, and this was before I went into detail about all of the certifications you need to make to get this latest medical signoff. The email writers were mostly very appropriate, though they voiced their disagreement with me directly and in no uncertain terms. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Thanks for sharing your views.

Their arguments were basically twofold. First, they said that I should be promoting aviation, in general, and not shooting down this new, relaxed medical certification route. That’s a tough one. I will say this: I’m the most optimistic editor in the country when it comes to the future of general aviation. I don’t just think we’ll limp along like this for a while. I think GA will rise and be giant and be great again. I really, honestly believe that, and for some great reasons, too, not just to be a sunny optimistic, which I, by nature, am not. But when the FAA presents regulatory changes that, like BasicMed, aren’t what was promised, I’ll call them on it, every time, too. That’s my duty to our readers. Period. End of story. Sometimes that will feel like adding a load of anvils to our hopes for a smooth takeoff for a new reg, but if you’ve got anvils in back, you should at least be aware of that fact when you’re calculating your V-speeds.

The second argument, and this is where I acknowledge I was wrong, is that BasicMed, despite its admitted weaknesses, really is good for a lot of pilots. That’s undeniably true. There are many pilots with existing conditions that their AME would shoot down who can sail through BasicMed’s less rigorous set of disqualifying conditions. For each and every one of those pilots, that’s a great thing, and I might be there myself one day, and on that day, I’ll thank heaven for the chance to keep flying.

Thanks for setting me straight on that.

Look Out Below! Steam Gauges!

I recently found myself flying IFR in an ill-equipped Cessna Skylane (the one that happens to belong to me), heading home from Alabama to central Texas. My plane has a single VOR receiver in the panel, but it also has a glideslope receiver. There’s no RNAV in the panel, and don’t laugh at the ILS capability.

Unlike the author of a piece I ran across recently, I had it good. The article was written back in the early 1970s by sometime-Plane & Pilot contributor Archie Trammell. In it, he describes how he regularly flew some serious IFR trips with a single VOR—no glideslope receiver.

Unlike Archie of old, on my flight the other week, I had the distinct advantage of having three different forms of RNAV at my immediate disposal: my Garmin aera 660 portable WAAS navigator, an iPhone with Garmin Pilot running and my iPad with ForeFlight, as well. So while I didn’t need the VOR receiver to figure out where I was going, it was a necessity for legal reasons. None of my GPS devices were approved for primary navigation guidance, but the VOR receiver, by far the least accurate and reliable unit in the bunch, was so approved. So I dutifully tuned to the many VORs along the way and watched it struggle to figure out where it was in relation to the transmissions' very high frequency radio stations to which my antique radio receiver so desperately clung.

Unlike the VOR, which I really didn’t need, I was delighted to have ILS capability. Had I needed to fly a low approach, I’d have been nicely covered. That’s because all along the Gulf Coast were international and big regional airports with ILSes galore. Even though the weather enroute was mostly at VOR approach minimums or slightly higher, the ability to fly an ILS was a great thing to have in my back pocket, in case the ceilings started going lower. Not to mention that ILSes are an order of magnitude safer and more reliable than a VOR approach. And had I needed to get down for some unforeseen reason at an airport without an ILS, I could always  fly a VOR procedure.

As it turned out, none of the flying I did was too hard, even though some of it was in actual, slightly bumpy conditions. Still, I can say that it was easy only with the caveat that I knew where I was at all times with a margin of error of something like 10 feet, thanks to the aera 660. Had I been flying by actual reference to the VOR receiver, an accuracy of a mile or so might have been more like it.

I could tell you that I followed the VOR for guidance, but that would be a lie. I kept tuning it, to stay legal, while following the magenta line on the aera 660.

Today, I’m in the process of spec-ing out my new panel, which will be filled with high-tech wonders, each one unimaginable back in 1964 when my G-model Skylane rolled through Cessna Aircraft’s big hangar doors in Wichita, Kansas, with a panel powered by vacuum pressure, practice and substantial helpings of both faith and courage.

As critical as that kind of grit is, when it comes to real IFR, I’ll take dual digital AHRS, air data and a three-axis autopilot every time out.


If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

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