FAA medical reform – what it means for pilots

4 min read

Third-class medical reform may eliminate the need to visit an AME.

If you’ve held a valid medical certificate in the past 10 years, you may never have to see an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) again.  And for those just coming into aviation, you may be able to complete just one AME medical exam at the beginning of your flying and then use the simplified process as long as your flying can be accomplished with third class privileges.

This regulatory and financial relief is part of what is generically referred to as “third-class medical reform” – one of the top lobbying efforts of the major aviation associations for years.  While it’s uncertain how quickly the new law will take effect, FAA will presumably begin a rulemaking process to make the regulatory changes required by the legislation.  To ensure pilots do not have to wait indefinitely, there is a provision in the legislations that allows pilots to operate under the new reform guidance beginning in July, 2017 if a final rule has not been issued.

In July, 2016, President Obama signed a funding extension for the FAA that included third-class medical reform.  The change, as noted above, reduces the financial and regulatory burdens of recreational flight.  In short, it will make it easier to fly for many pilots which is a major victory for general aviation.

Pilot in airplane

3rd class medical reform includes recreational or personal flying

Third class medical flying can be thought of as recreational or personal flying – generally flight training and all types of flying short of commercial operations including day and night VFR operations and even IFR flying.  When using the simplified medical process, there is a maximum number of passengers that may be carried (5) and the aircraft operated is limited to six seats and no more than 6,000 lbs.  Pilots are also altitude restricted to 18,000 feet MSL (no Class A operations) and a speed limit of 250 knots.

Third-class medical reform does not affect those already flying sport aircraft with a valid driver’s license in lieu of a third-class medical.  You may continue flying light-sport aircraft.

doctor talking to her male patient at office

Pilots will be required to visit a physician at least every four years

As part of the new guidance, pilots will need to visit their primary care physician at least once every four years and provide an FAA-developed checklist of issues to be discussed during the visit.  Both the pilot and physician will need to sign the checklist stating that indeed discussed the various items.  A record of the required visit and checklist will then be noted in the pilot’s logbook.  There is no additional need to report or file anything directly with FAA.

The required checklist will be in two parts.  There will be questions to be answered by the pilot in advance of the exam and a list of items for the physician to include as part of the exam which are typical of items found in any routine physical.  The questions will include a short medical history and list of current medications and, as one might expect, information about whether the pilot has had a medical denied, suspended or revoked.

Pilots will also be expected to complete an online training course in aeromedical factors every two years.  The course will be available from the AOPA Air Safety Institute and will be free to complete.

Perhaps the greatest financial and regulatory relief of the reform movement comes to those with special issuance medicals.  Special issuance medicals are an option for pilots with certain medical conditions that are specifically disqualifying.  Once FAA reviews the history and circumstances, the pilot may be cleared to fly under the special issuance authorization.

If you currently hold a special issuance third-class medical, or have held one within the ten years preceding July 15, 2016, and do not suffer one of the specific cardiac, neurological, or mental health conditions identified as exceptions, you will never again be required to go through the special issuance process.

An important note is that third-class medical reform does not alleviate the need for pilots to continually self-certify when it comes to being fit for flight.  This includes consideration for any medications that may affect physical or cognitive abilities.  While it would make sense that a primary care physician would be in a better position to assess one’s overall health than the snapshot that takes place during the traditional AME exam, the process also depends on an honest and free exchange with your doctor.