2 min read

Reforming (or eliminating) the aging Third Class Medical process has been the dream of aviation organizations and individual pilots for years. Most pilots agree that it does little to improve safety but it does an awful lot to discourage new pilots from entering aviation. Since we all self-certify our fitness to fly for 3-5 years in between medical exams, why not make that permanent and do away with the paperwork?

Medical exam

The pilot medical is changing, but it may not be going away completely.

This reform seems closer than ever, thanks to a lot of lobbying from a lot of aviation organizations. Sen. James Inhofe has been pushing his “Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2” and it has now attracted 67 Senate co-sponsors and 140 House co-sponsors. But as usual, the devil is in the details. Some last-minute changes, which were necessary to get all those co-sponsors, may fundamentally change the nature of the reform.

For one, all new pilots will have to get a Third Class Medical when they begin flying. This is to establish a “benchmark condition” for pilots, but future visits to an Aviation Medical Examiner will not be necessary. Any pilot who has received a valid medical in the last 10 years meets this requirement. In addition, all pilots must see their family doctor every four years, but the results of that visit do not have to be shared with the FAA.

AOPA and EAA both support this new legislation, claiming it is the best possible reform on the table. While it may not be perfect, it would allow thousands of pilots to fly without seeing an AME. It also might pave the way for even more changes in the future.

What do you think? Is this new bill, even in its modified form, a big step forward? Or is it no better than the current system?

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John Zimmerman
38 replies
  1. Long Awaited New Pilot
    Long Awaited New Pilot says:

    This revision seems hasty and without common sense for a few reasons.

    1) Nothing will have changed for new pilots trying to get a license as I understand it. Unless the special issuance process has changed, any individual who is considered safe enough to drive via a driver’s license will be no better off when the bill is passed. I’m not sure what the statistics are, but my guess is an unhealthy driver may be more likely to cause injury to himself or others in a car than in a GA plane.

    2) Under this revision if an individual wished to get a private pilot license they would still risk losing the ability to fly as a sport pilot if the special issuance was denied.

    3) From a safety perspective, this revision renders aviation less safe as compared to at least requiring a driver’s license. It seems that even an individual denied a drivers license would be able to fly under this revision.

    In summary, it seems hasty, poorly thought out, and revised in an attempt to simply garner votes; a political solution.

  2. Liad B.
    Liad B. says:

    I have to say I’m at 50/50 on this one. On one hand I don’t want 80 year olds flying around without a proper check of thier health (that goes for driving as well btw) if anything I would increase control over old people just to keep everyone safe… Vision, coordination, it all degrads when we get old. On the other hand, preventing a person with prostate cancer to fly is down right stuipd, it has no effects on his ability to control the plane, So, as I said, I’m smack on the fence.

    • Frank Trojcak
      Frank Trojcak says:

      One of these days your going to be 80 and I hope older!….. I’m 85 and have been flying since 16 in all types of aircraft including the fastest Jet Fighters the USAF had as well as instructing in them. I also have spent a lot of time in large Transports (4-Eng) and instructed in them. Having retired several years ago I found myself with Atrial Fibrillation and a Pacemaker Implant (Non-Defibrillator) for the past 9 years. Twice a year I take the required test with my Electrologist/Cardiologist and forward the paperwork to FAA Plus an FAA Medical Examiner. All this cost me excessive time and funds which I gladly pay just to keep flying my 310 and 182. I’ve never had an accident/incident or a stroke or heart attack. My Doctor indicates that I’m healthier than 90% of the people out there. I have no restrictions and with 20/20 eyesight I also take no prescription medication. Now your worried I might have a problem. Well friend I think your closer to having a problem than I. Better see your Medical Examiner two times year so you don’t give some 80+ person flying in the same air you are!..
      Yes, I welcome the new requirement but want the same for my problem as everybody else. The requirement for all pilots is: If you don’t feel good stay on the ground or go see your doctor!……………………………….. It would probably keep the accident rate lower than it is.

  3. David Reinhart
    David Reinhart says:

    The recent deaths of airline pilots while in-flight point out the unreliability of medical exams, even at six month intervals, as predictors of in-flight incapacitation. The Third Class is a complete joke. It should have been off the books years ago. The huge amount of time and money the FAA puts into processing SIs is wasted and could be put to much better use.

  4. Sami
    Sami says:

    Anyone who can reasonably fog a mirror can get a drivers license. Earning your PPL requires a considerable commitment in time/money/effort that has stopped even well-heeled people from even trying. So, being something one must strive to earn and requires a passion to exercise the privilege thereof, most pilots will self regulate. I, myself, have temporarily self-grounded due to a non-incapacitating injury but which required temporary medication that mildly affected my abilities. I have also skipped flights because I just didn’t feel right. I believe most responsible pilots do the same. And the irresponsible ones, well, failing a Class III wouldn’t stop them anyway. I respect the gift of flight enough to promise myself and my loved ones that I will ground myself when I am no longer able to safely exercise the privilege. That way I can sit around and hangar fly with the old ones at the airport and also tell my grandkids about my flying days instead of someone else telling my stories for me. I believe, from those I have met in The Community, that the majority are of the same mind. And the rogues, well, they are just that, rogues and the requirement of a Class III won’t stop them. I say pass the bill and move on.

  5. John
    John says:

    John, you do a good with this site but I think a few of your comments on this topic are a bit truncated and deserve more explanation:

    (1) “does an awful lot to discourage new pilots from entering aviation” –I can tell you firsthand that people think about the amount of time and money invested in learning to fly, staying current, purchasing an aircraft (as well as maintaining and storing it), and they weigh that (even if subconsciously) against the likelihood that government will someday take away their privilege of personal flying—and all that investment is lost. It is not easy to buy and sell an aircraft; they are not liquid assets. For some, the risk of losing flying privileges is the single barrier to making GA investments.

    (2) “but future visits to an Aviation Medical Examiner will not be necessary” –not necessarily true. If you have heart problems or a stroke you are back to an Oklahoma City special issuance situation, despite what your personal doctors say about your flying. How many people will eventually have heart issues as they age? It’s a LOT.
    (3) “It also might pave the way for even more changes in the future” –it’s been my observation that once legislation is passed on a specific topic, there is sort of an unspoken rule in Congress to leave that topic alone for a while (i.e. many years); examples would be Child Tax Credits, Social Security, Seat belt law, Dodd-Frank, AMT, Light Sport; Congress tends to leave new laws alone for a great while before changing/modifying; so once medical legislation is passed, I wouldn’t look for changes to be passed anytime soon.

    I’m sure you and many of the readers here have seen the comments posted on, it’s overwhelmingly an upset group—perhaps the “happy” people just didn’t comment much, but my sense is that the pilot community really thinks the medical situation in our “hobby” is unfair. Compare it to motorcycles, boats, RV’s, and pretty much anything with a motor that doesn’t fly and you see the “unfairness” quite clearly. Life isn’t fair I know, but when it comes to the 3rd class medical, it sure seems personal flying took it between the eyes.

    …..btw, Doesn’t Sporty’s have one of those 162’s for rent? Not too long a drive from Bowman Field (LOU) I guess :)

  6. Duane
    Duane says:

    Something always beats nothing. Half a loaf beats starvation. We should take this and run.

    Fundamentally, I see no reason why pilots should expect to NEVER have to do any kind of medical certification, ever, in order to fly. Requiring that one has had a third class medical within the last 10 years, and has seen a doctor within the previous four years, is not a burden on any but those who are obviously not medically qualified to fly, in most cases. Yes, if you have a situation that requires a special issuance, that is fine too, as long as you don’t have to keep going through a bureaucratic maze every two years. Letting regular medical doctors keep tabs on heart patients seems the logical thing to do, rather than a bureaucrat in Oklahoma City. If the final language provides that kind of result, then it’s just fine.

    There are going to be some pilots who simply can’t pass any kind of medical yet still want to fly. That was never the purpose of the sport pilot certification, to let obviously medically-inhibited pilots fly, even if that was the practical effect.

    We can always go back for another bite at the apple later. Nothing stops that. This isn’t the kind of earthshaking legislation, like ObamaCare or No Child Left Behind that is going to cause dread and trepidation amongst legislators if someone proposes a tweak.

  7. Born 2 Av8
    Born 2 Av8 says:

    A poor compromise led by politicians caving to the ALPA lobby. Remove all medical requirements (beyond a driver’s license), allow for color vision deficiency with technology (external comms and electronic flight bag) and integrate a reasonable UAV/drone solution.

  8. CharleyA
    CharleyA says:

    Personally, I think the driver’s license provision should be a part of this compromise. In some states, those over a certain age are evaluated on their ability to drive competently in order to renew. It would also catch those who lose their license due to reckless behavior – not sure if I feel safe with those individuals sharing my airspace. Otherwise, if the changes made insure the passage of the bill, I’m for it. I’m lucky in that I don’t have a condition that would potentially disqualify or necessitate a special issuance, but I know pilots who do and it costs them a lot of money for testing to maintain their medicals.

  9. Rick
    Rick says:

    I’m amazed how our country justifies allowing people to drive down our busy and chocked highways in their “missles” or “rockets” passing within sometimes just inches of each other with a combined “air speed” of 140 mph without even a thought of medical worthiness and go crazy about regulations for us private pilots. Any pilot who flies regularly will give you ten to one odds from their experiences and understanding as to how much areas in our country have vast expanses that if they had a heart attack, the only one to suffer would be them and their airplane. The biggest worry is “will the rescuers even find where I go down”. Yet our regulators justify the ridiculous medical standards in the name of safety. What is good for the goose is good for the gander!! :)

  10. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    I think the medical is a relic left over from the thirties when the public view of a pilot was that of a super human; and you had to prove it by taking tests and jumping through hoops. Of course, in those days there weren’t too many old pilots; it was a game for younger people. There really can’t be much of a safety argument because, as in all aspects of life, living organisms tend to have a pretty strong self-preservation instinct. That means they won’t go flying if they think they’re going to die.

    On the other hand, I was recently discussing this with my AME. He claims that about 17% of the 3rd class candidates he sees can’t pass some basic aspect of the physical; like the vision test. That surprises me, but I don’t think there is much death and mayhem even so.

  11. Mark
    Mark says:

    Perhaps some reform is better than no reform, perhaps not. There is not an AME within 50 miles of my home, so setting and making an appointment is an all-day affair. I suspect that is the case for many pilots, and requiring an initial exam for a prospective pilot could prove to be an barrier eventually considered not worth the bother.

    Once again, as with most things political, common sense seems to not play a part in the equation.

  12. Dan
    Dan says:

    I support the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2.

    Pilots are a conscientious community who can medically self certified for non commercial operations.

    A discipline private pilot who approaches flying as a professional understands the risks and responsibility associated with flying coupled with the physical demands.

    Statistically, I believe aircraft accidents have a low probability because of a medically emergency.

  13. Gail A. Hammans
    Gail A. Hammans says:

    I still don’t know, I being on a “special issurance”, just how it will affect me. I have to get one every year.

  14. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    I’m for this provision if we get some oversight in the form of flight reviews.

    How many of us know someone who probably shouldn’t be in the air, but he keeps getting signed off by his buddy who happens to be a CFI?

    I’d like to see the requirements for a flight review become more standardized, and I’d like to see them become annual flight reviews after age 65. We all age differently and if a pilot can fly the plane, even in simulated emergencies/crosswinds/rough weather, then they should be allowed to keep doing it. But if they can’t, we need to give them the chance to either get out of the cockpit or get the training they need to pass the review safely.

  15. John Koch
    John Koch says:

    The way I read this is that we will still have to get a flight medical every 10 years?
    Is that correct??
    Or is my regular medical visits to my doctor OK??

  16. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    John, thank you, as usual, for your attention to a major problem for a lot of people. One person mentioned the S.I., and a lot of people seem to think this only pertains to heart conditions. I have type two diabetes mellitus, and had to get both my regular doctor, and blood work, annual visit, to submit copies of my medical evaluation to the FAA every year. Then, every other year, they would send me a letter to visit my AME, with them providing authority to issue the required 3rd class medical certificate. The intervening years, they would send me the approved certificate themselves.
    This political pontification means what for someone like me.

  17. Paul Natali
    Paul Natali says:

    We should dump the third class Medical. It is a waste of time and money. It does nothing to predict how well we can aviate, that is what the B.F.R. is for.

  18. Brian Neiman
    Brian Neiman says:

    How many pilots with valid medicals have died or were incapacitated while flying ? How did the medical help them or protect others ?

    If I can drive from PA to FL in 12 hours with no medical, how does the medical provide any additional safety if I fly from PA to FL in 6 hours ?

    Going to your Doctor for regular checkups and self grounding oneself if medical condition(s) warrant is what individual responsibility is all about.

    Just having a valid medical may mean you’re legal although it does not provide any added measure of safety if you rely on the medical and not common sense and individual responsibility.

  19. Paul Madden
    Paul Madden says:

    My last valid 3rd medical requires that I have a medical every year to check on a particular condition. Will this still be required (by an FAA approved physician) if the most current proposal is passed? My normal physician checks on the condition as a matter of course each year and it is easily treated through medication. Anyway, I am well aware of the condition and know when not to fly. It just doesn’t suddenly happen in a way that might affect my flying.
    Just asking.

  20. Gail A. Hammans
    Gail A. Hammans says:

    John, can you clear up, what the proposed “Special Issurance” will be under the new changes?

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Here’s AOPA’s answer about special issuance medicals:

      “One of the biggest problems with the current special issuance process is that it’s a continual renewal, with all the cost, paperwork, and hassle associated with it each time. Under the bill’s language, you receive the third class medical special issuance once and you’re good to go, with only future visits to your personal physician at least every 48 months. In addition, the bill requires the FAA to streamline its special issuance process, so even that one time might not be as much of a burden in the future.”

      And further, if you’ve held a special issuance in the past 10 years, you may have to get another one if you’ve been diagnosed with certain conditions, including: cardiovascular (heart attack, valve replacement), neurological (epilepsy, unexplained unconsciousness) and psychological (severe personality disorder, severe bipolar disorder).

  21. Dan Drew
    Dan Drew says:

    Enact the revised rule. It has NOTHING to do with safety. Research where FAA Medicals came from anyway….to weed out pilots after WW2. The FAA is archaic and draconian in their rules and methods.

    • Johhny Simpson
      Johhny Simpson says:

      Agree with this as well. The FAA for what it does good, does several multiples more of useless oversight. Time for an overhaul.

  22. Randall Waldrip
    Randall Waldrip says:

    As a healthy Sport Pilot, this would do me no good. I have some medical issues that are well monitored and controlled, but they would make getting a 3rd class medical risky business. There is only one plane that I can rent within 100 miles of my home. This is a good as nothing except for saving some pilots some time, hassle, and expense. It would not get any more people flying.

  23. Robert
    Robert says:

    I think it makes total sense and I am all for it. Whether it passes or not is another question. Right now it appears to be a battle of lobbyists, led by the AMA and the AME’s (many of who are for it) who mostly want to keep the status quo, and AOPA who at times seems to be using the issue just to raise more money. The simple fact is that there is basically zero evidence that the Third Class Medical saves lives or makes any difference at all in respect to safety. Yet, it is a continual hassle for private pilots. The proposed change makes total sense. You still need to see your doctor, and you still need to be physically competent to fly the aircraft. I think an competent CFI will catch any significant medical issues on a BFR. If I can’t read the instruments because I’m blind I think a CFI is going to pick up on that. If I can’t hear, the CFI and the tower will pick up on it right away. The bottom line is that I can pass a medical exam, but if I don’t feel well, or I have a medical issue, even a small one, I’m not flying. I love life too much to risk it. And if you can tell me a Third Class Medical, or even a First Class Medical, has ever stopped a heart attack I’d love to hear about. In fact, an airline pilot with a current First Class Medical certificate died in the cockpit during a flight. That certificate didn’t help him at all.

    • Johhny Simpson
      Johhny Simpson says:

      I’m happy to see you’re seeing AOPA for what it is fast becoming – an almost irrelevant bureaucracy in itself. Mark Baker has to go!

  24. Michael Tenenbaum
    Michael Tenenbaum says:

    I like the deal because it encourages pilots to get a regular checkup with their own physician. As things stand now, pilots are scared to death to see a physician because the current System punishes pilots if something is found during a routine exam.

    • Johhny Simpson
      Johhny Simpson says:

      This is true too, it’s the way OUR government thinks “LAND OF THE FREE” is when it comes to air travel…funny sheeet!

  25. Jim Pleace
    Jim Pleace says:

    And here we are after it passed the Senate and it is completely watered down. It still requires a medical and really accomplishes NOTHING. AOPA and EAA totally caved to Congress. It is watered down and a complete cave in

    • Johhny Simpson
      Johhny Simpson says:

      I agree with you Jim. After all the time and money spent by AOPA, they gave in. Another representation of Mark Baker’s weakness. He has to go!

  26. Johhny Simpson
    Johhny Simpson says:

    The dilemma over change is typical in America culture now, if WE can’t BOMB it, we can’t change it!

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