Third-class Medical Exemption Gets New Support From Senate

 - April 6, 2014, 2:25 AM

After the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) submitted a petition for exemption for the third-class medical requirement for private or recreational pilots on March 20, 2012, more than 14,000 comments overwhelmingly in support of the exemption were submitted to the FAA. However, the agency failed to act on the exemption request, and now Congress is exerting pressure on the FAA to expand the third-class medical exemption, which currently applies to sport pilots.

The AOPA/EAA request was for pilots who fly aircraft with up to 180 hp, four seats and fixed landing gear; VFR only with no more than one passenger; and not for business or for hire. Pilots seeking to fly using the exemption would have to participate in recurrent online health education and maintain a valid driver’s license.

To support the petition, AOPA/EAA noted that available “statistical evidence supports our request.” In operations that don’t require a medical certificate, such as gliders, there is no higher incidence of medical-related accidents. And during the first seven years of implementation of the sport pilot rules, which don’t require an FAA medical examination, “there have been NO accidents attributable to pilot medical deficiency,” the groups noted. Yet in the past 10 years there have been plenty of cases where pilots holding valid medical certificates, many flying commercially, suffered serious medical issues, including death, while flying.

On March 11, Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced a bill–S.2103–that would expand the FAA’s third-class medical exemption; the bill is similar to the House of Representatives’ General Aviation Pilot Protection Act introduced in December. These bills would force the FAA to allow pilots to fly without a third-class medical in non-commercial VFR operations in aircraft weighing up to 6,000 pounds with up to six seats, carrying up to five passengers, as high as 14,000 feet and no faster than 250 knots. Industry speculation suggests that the Congressional proposal might be a way to force the FAA to approve the original exemption request to forestall the Act’s more tolerant parameters.

While most of the comments on the exemption petition supported it, one pilot and medical professional wrote that the medical requirement “would help maintain safety for passengers as well as people/property on the ground. The thought of knowing that people could be flying above me or in the air with me in unsatisfactory health is quite scary. We need to keep our skies and the ground safe!” Another wrote: “I disagree with the proposal to allow medical certification by driver’s license. Dumb idea. I am a private pilot and it is clear to me that my peers would still fly if unfit medically if they could. Do not do this!”

Most of the commenters echoed this submission from a military, airline and GA pilot: “After flying…for 40 years I think I have the experience and responsible attitude that should allow me to decide if I am fit to fly an airplane. An FAA aeromedical physical is just a snapshot at a specific time; each pilot must decide before each flight if he is fit to make the flight.”