Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

May I See Your Driver’s License?

Data proving you don’t need an FAA medical certificate to be safe comes as no surprise to many

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.

Beech 58
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.


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