Legislator wants investigation into pilot medicals

 - April 30, 2007, 6:29 AM

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has called for a hearing later this spring on falsified medical certificates after the Transportation Department’s Inspector General found “egregious” cases of airmen lying to the FAA about medical conditions to pass their medical exams.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said a significant number of certified pilots have lied about serious medical conditions to get a pilot certificate, but the FAA has failed to stem this practice.

During a 2005 investigation in which the DOT IG’s office reviewed the medical applications of 40,000 Northern California pilots, it found more than 3,200 airmen with current medical certificates who were simultaneously receiving Social Security benefits, nearly a quarter of them for medical disability. The U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuted about 40 cases, but Oberstar said it could have pursued hundreds more if its resources had not been constrained.

As a result, the Inspector General recommended that the FAA coordinate with Social Security and other disability providers to identify people whose documented medical conditions are inconsistent with sworn statements made to the FAA.

Earlier this year, Oberstar requested that the committee’s Oversight and Investigations Majority Staff study the matter of falsified medical certificates. The staff report identified “widespread” fraud among pilots who hide serious medical conditions from examining physicians to retain medical certification for their licenses.

The lawmaker said the FAA’s researchers have documented hundreds of fatal accidents where pilots failed to disclose potentially disqualifying medical conditions on their airman medical certificate applications.

The research team found toxicology evidence of serious medical conditions in nearly 10 percent of all pilots involved in fatal accidents during a 10-year period. Fewer than 10 percent of these medical conditions were disclosed to the FAA.

Oberstar said that the FAA has no process to check for misrepresentations on medical certificate applications. He added that the agency believes that doing so would save only two lives per year.

He said the procedure is as follows: the FAA simply files away a “clean” medical report, while medical reports that honestly disclose potentially disqualifying medical conditions receive extensive scrutiny.

“The FAA’s response to the danger posed by airmen lying about their conditions is unacceptable,” Oberstar said. “Contrary to the FAA’s opinion that the problem is not widespread, the DOT IG’s Social Security matching study performed by FAA scientists suggests otherwise.”

He pointed out that if the 40 people prosecuted from the sample of 40,000 airmen in Northern California were extrapolated to the entire pool of certified pilots, the number would approach 1,000. That number would approach 64,000 if the FAA researchers’ estimate that 10 percent of pilots involved in fatal accidents had serious medical conditions were extrapolated to the entire pilot pool.

According to statistics from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, medical incapacitation accounted for 0.25 percent of GA accidents and 1.03 percent of fatal GA accidents between 1995 and 2004. 

FAA Safety Manager Fined

On March 28, John R. Black, a former aviation safety program manager in the FAA’s Spokane, Wash., Flight Standards District Office, was fined $1,000 and ordered to serve three years probation by a U.S. District Court judge in Spokane for failing to report disqualifying prescription medications on his 2004 airman medical application. Black pleaded guilty last November 27 to a charge of making a false statement on his FAA airman medical application.

The FAA considered Black a “national resource” pilot for the Dassault Falcon because of his knowledge and expertise with this type of aircraft. Black’s duties included conducting proving flights for Falcon pilots approximately once a month. Black resigned from the FAA after his indictment in June 2006.