Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
September 21, 2014

NTSB ‘Concerned’ About Proposal to End Medical Certification for Pilots

The acting head of the National Transportation Safety Board voiced doubts in House testimony Thursday about a proposed bill that would end the Federal Aviation Administration’s medical certification requirement for many general aviation pilots.

NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart stopped short of explicitly opposing a bill sponsored by Reps. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and Sam Graves, R-Mo., that would end the FAA’s Third Class medical certification process for pilots whose aircraft carries up to five passengers.

But at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, Hart said, “We’re very concerned about pilots flying without adequate medical standards.”

He explained that “we base our policy based on what we see in accidents and so far we haven’t seen enough accidents to warrant an agency position on it. But we are very concerned about [pilots] not only not having to have a medical, but then in addition to that, if you don’t have a medical, you’re less likely to pay attention to the FAA’s list of prohibited drugs” as well as illegal drugs.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., urged Hart to have the NTSB take a position on the bill and said, “I cannot believe that that [Rokita-Graves legislation] could come to any good.”

Ending the FAA certification requirement is a top priority for the general aviation pilots group, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

“We’re laser focused on this,” AOPA president Mark Baker told the aviation enthusiasts meeting EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., Tuesday.

Jim Coon, AOPA’s senior vice president of government affairs and advocacy, said FAA administrator Michael Huerta made some encouraging comments about possible FAA action when he spoke to the Oshkosh gathering Thursday.

FAA rules already allow recreational pilots to fly one- and two-seat light aircraft without a third class medical certificate.

While urging the FAA to act, AOPA has also asked Congress to pass the Rokita-Graves bill.

Graves has said that the FAA medical certification process is “nothing more than a bureaucratic hoop to jump through. It discourages new pilots and does not truly improve safety.”

Separately, NTSB chief Hart announced at Thursday’s hearing that his agency is examining trends in the prevalence of over-the-counter, prescription, and illicit drugs identified by toxicology testing of fatally injured airmen between 1990 and 2012.

“In general aviation, our investigators sometimes see evidence of drug use by pilots involved in accidents. So we decided it was time to look at this issue more in depth,” he said.

The NTSB plans to hold a public meeting in September to consider this study and issue potential recommendations.

  • John

    First, let’s make it clear we are talking only about
    private recreational pilots, not commercial pilots, airline pilots or other
    large carriers. Those are entirely two different realms, requiring very
    different certification criteria. The private recreational pilot typically flies
    VFR, flies only occasionally, with only
    a few passengers, if any, and with simple General Aviation aircraft, such as
    Cessna or Piper 2,4, or 6 seat aircraft. By contrast, airline pilots may carry
    500 passengers in a very complex aircraft and under difficult IFR conditions,
    and on a daily basis. This distinction needs to be emphasized before
    proceeding.

    Now to the main argument:

    Relative numbers and risk: FAA 3rd class medical policies are
    grossly out of proportion to the numbers and risks it supposedly addresses. To
    see this clearly we must discuss relative numbers and risks in a larger
    context. The absurdity of FAA 3rd class medical policy can only
    be seen by looking at this larger context.

    In all of general aviation (GA), there are about 450-500 deaths
    a year. Of those, an infinitesimal fraction are due to outright medical
    impairment (in flight heart attack, diabetic coma, etc). Overwhelmingly, they
    are due to mechanical malfunction (itself many causes), fuel mismanagement, bad and unpredictable weather, poor judgment, inadequate training, alcohol or
    drugs, youthful risk taking, and just bad luck. These are all factors
    unrelated to things preventable by the 3rd class medical. But, let
    us say that 10% are due to actual medical incapacitation (probably a high
    figure). Assuming that, it means that about 45-50 deaths a year occur from
    medical incapacitation in all of GA. Note that number is roughly in the same
    ballpark as deaths due to lightning strikes or falling out of bed (literally). The
    question this raises is: Does such a low number of casualties warrant an
    intrusive and expensive federal bureaucracy to police it? Common sense
    would say “no”. Consider the following:

    By contrast, there
    are (approximately):
    4500 motorcycle accident deaths a year,
    54 skiing accident deaths,
    650 boating accident deaths,
    700 bicycle accident deaths,
    5300 pedestrian deaths,
    2400 drowning deaths swimming in public areas,
    35,000+ auto accident deaths a year.

    NONE of these activities have any medical requirement or
    ongoing bureaucratic supervision. At most, a simple license application is
    required. Anyone can drive a 20,000 pound RV on the highway at 70 mph without a medical. As the list shows, a myriad of other activities cause death with far higher numbers than due to aviation medical incapacitation.

    Why is the private recreational pilot is singled out
    for this grossly out of proportion, costly and unfair treatment? All pursued by
    an expensive federal bureaucracy, paid for by the taxpayer.

    One might claim the low numbers of medically related
    accidents is because the 3rd class medical has filtered out
    larger numbers that would have caused accidents. However, since the sport pilot exemption was created 10 years ago, there has not been a significant rise in accidents in that group for medical causes (despite the arguably less safe
    characteristics of LSA aircraft they are forced to fly). So, there is no reason
    to believe the present rate of casualties would be significantly higher without
    the 3rd class medical. But even if the death rate was 10 times
    higher (which it certainly is not), it would still be smaller or no larger than
    most of the unregulated categories listed above. And there are actually some negative health implications of the 3rd class medical. It is a strong
    disincentive to go to a doctor for treatment of a suspected or real ailment.
    That is because of fear of creating a paper trail for the FAA to later ground
    the pilot. Thus, a pilot with medical issues may simply not get treatment so as
    to not be on record with an ailment.

    Absolute safety vs. reasonable safety: One often
    hears the phrase “if only one life is saved, it will be worth it”. Of course we
    know we cannot live by such a notion. If we did, driving cars, using boats,
    skiing, motorcycles, and innumerable other activities would have to be banned. The truth is we cannot attain a risk free world. If we tried, it would not be a world worth living in. That is because the restrictions necessary for it would make life intolerably devoid of freedom. In reality, we strive for a reasonable balance
    between safety and freedom. But in the world of FAA medical certification, it
    appears absolute safety is the goal, and freedom is not considered at
    all. Hermetically isolated bureaucracies often behave this way, and only
    outside intervention can restore a reasonable balance.

    The crippling of an entire industry: One result of
    this over zealous medical policy is that General Aviation is a shrinking
    industry. While there are many other factors causing this shrinkage, medical
    certification red tape is certainly one of them. With ever fewer pilots getting
    certified, all other aspects of the industry are shrinking accordingly.

    John Dobbins,
    Louisville KY

    • Roger Duck

      Excellent, excellent post. This should be sent to the FAA and the NTSB. C. Hart is not interested in facts, just preserving the bureaucracy. His only argument is:

      “we base our policy based on what we see in accidents and so far we haven’t seen enough accidents to warrant an agency position on it. But we are very concerned about [pilots] not only not having to have a medical, but then in addition to that, if you don’t have a medical, you’re less likely to pay attention to the FAA’s list of prohibited drugs” as well as illegal drugs.”

      “we base our policy based on what we see in accidents and so far we haven’t seen enough accidents to warrant an agency position on it.” ……………..HUH?
      Excuse me, but this is laughable. I have a hard time believing that this weak, juvenile argument is from a high ranking Government official. He has no clue of the facts that John has pointed out. Somebody should inform him that pilots are tested every one, two. or three years for illicit drug use and are on the honor system for avoiding these drugs in the interim.
      I did not research facts like John did, but I do know of one accident here in Alabama that was medically caused. A seventy-something man died at the controls. His wife, a non-pilot, was talked down to a safe landing…..good outcome. Oh, BTW, the pilot had a current medical.
      Scott Mallard,
      Huntsville AL

  • Terrance Power

    Show me one case – just one – where a third class medical accurately predicted when a pilot would become incapacitated while flying. It doesn’t exist.

    The third class medical does nothing more than needlessly drive up costs and bureaucracy for pilots. It’s useless and does nothing to protect the pilot or the public. And we have ten years of Sport Pilot history to prove that this is completely true.

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