I was busy enjoying my Private license and averaging 45 hours a year touring the UK, visiting new airfields, and sharing the experience with friends and family from my home airfield of City Airport Manchester -Barton. Then, in September 2020, a letter landed on my doorstep inviting me to the Cardiac Surgery Unit to discuss my aortic valve replacement. Time stood still for a few minutes. My most recent scan had determined that, in much the same way it is advisable to change a timing belt before it breaks, it was time to swap put my valve. All routine, I was assured.
My yearly Echocardiogram with my consultant and Class 2 medicals had been rather routine and without change; however, the numbers no longer added up and it was time to discuss a plan to swap out the old valve and “install” a new one.
I consider myself fortunate as my AME is quite simply, exceptional. Not only that, but he has extensive knowledge and personal experience of such surgery and has closely monitored and taken a keen interest in my valve and yearly check-ups since my initial disclosure of the condition when I obtained my initial Class 2 medical in 2012 and before I even took a lesson. I told my AME that I could not realistically, and with a clear conscience, continue to take friends and loved ones flying knowing that I needed heart surgery. He agreed that it was a wise decision to suspend my medical which is exactly what we did. The non-equity group that I was a part of allowed me to freeze my payments but keep my keys for my return to the air – an incredibly powerful gesture that I will mention again later.
I will fast forward to the December 17, 2021 and my admission to the hospital. Unfortunately, the operation was delayed due to the pandemic, but I remained fit and well and was thankful for that. The operation, although major, was a non-event. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would donate the lot to the Cardiac Care staff at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester and hope that it would reflect the utter admiration and respect I have for each and every one of them. From my surgeon to those responsible for the cleanliness of the ward, I could not have received better care.
I was discharged from the hospital on Christmas Day with a box of paracetamol and codeine. I still have both and they are unopened. Incredibly, my recovery accelerated and I returned to work 12 weeks after the procedure.
After major surgery, the CAA requirement is that a six month period must pass before it is possible to apply for a Class 2 medical, so I spent this time subscribing to every aviation publication I could find. My Air Pilot Manuals now look decidedly second hand and the weekly Flyer Live YouTube streams kept my spirits up as I very much looked forward to flying once again upon my recovery. Watching Flyer members doing just that was a real boost. When you cannot do something that you truly love, it serves only to demonstrate how lucky we are to fly.
I experienced how wonderful our group of aviation- minded friends and associates are and what it means to be part of such an inclusive community. When I was back driving six weeks after my operation, I was invited for breakfast at Westair with the engineers who look after our group Warrior at Barton just so that I could be around aviation. While a small gesture, it was an incredibly powerful one and I returned home with oil on my coat and my wife said I smelled of Avgas. I would not have had it any other way.
I was invited for coffee by my AME to discuss the road to regain my Class 2 medical (and to compare scars). If there is anybody reading this that is about to suspend their medical, or currently has a suspended medical and is unsure of what is required, then contact your AME. There are hoops to jump through to ensure we are safe, but with the support and advice of our AME, the CAA, ATO and aircraft group, it will undoubtedly be mapped out as a clear process and may even simpler than you think.
The CAA website contains a plethora of information and, upon attendance at my AME’s office, I was provided with numerous sheets of paper and a flowchart that detailed the exact medical checks and tests that would be require satisfactory completion in order for me to be examined in the usual way for my Class 2 medical. It is important to note, this is in addition to applying for and being successful in obtaining a Class 2 medical, as was relevant in my case. Other routes are available dependent on medical status.
It is worth pointing out that there is a significant cost involved to obtain these tests and examinations. Although it is worth checking, be prepared to pay for the tests yourself. I told myself that the cost involved was the money I had saved by not flying and so it didn’t seem so bad! I required a full blood spectrum test which was documented proof that my INR level was stable as I elected for a mechanical valve which requires warfarin. I also required a Bruce protocol treadmill test, an up to date Echo Scan Test, and a full report entitling me to undergo my Class 2 medical. All these tests needed to be arranged privately and were in addition to my six month CT scan arranged by the NHS to check the seating of my new valve.
I was eligible to apply for my Class 2 medical on June 17, 2022 which was six months after the procedure. A month or so beforehand, my AME provided me with the details of a Cardiologist Professor and aviation specialist who was a pilot himself and was local to me. The specialist would be able to advise me of the processes required and complete a report.
It seems strange to say that I enjoyed the process, but I was in the company of a respected Cardiologist who was a keen pilot and a thoroughly nice gentleman. I enjoyed the topless sprint on the treadmill with a covid mask on less but all in all, I had been waiting for this day for 18 months and was happy to be there.
In possession of my blood, CT and Echo results, my Cardiologist conducted the treadmill tests and prepared a report for my AME, declaring me suitable to proceed. After a thorough (and again – enjoyable) medical examination supported by the Cellma portal system for updating CAA medical applications, I was handed my Class 2 medical certificate on Monday, June 20, 2022 – six months and four days since my open-heart surgery. Amazing.
Now it was time to renew my license as currency had expired on April 30, 2022, but I was ready for the process. On June 22 the Warrior went in for a check and a cracked cylinder was identified that ultimately would lead to a new engine having to be ordered, delivered, and fitted. Having had my own engine and valve troubles, there was nothing I could do except be content that the Warrior was in the best hands with Westair and like me, the repair and recovery would be worth it.
In August I began the process of renewing my Private license with LAC Flying School at Barton. LAC is a superb school of friendly and knowledgeable staff who could not be more accommodating and interested to get me back into the air. My instructor, a retired lawyer, and I flew for six hours over a number of lessons and I have to say, as alien as it was at first, using that whizz wheel and flying by stopwatch, refreshed many skills I had forgotten that I had. Practiced forced landing and slow safe cruise, stalls and recovery – I loved every minute of it and I think we must have covered the whole Private syllabus.
On September 14 my instructor was satisfied that I was at the required standard and my paperwork was signed before my examiner took the right seat. He is a pilot with DHL and flies and instructs at Sleap. He had driven up to see if I had what it took to pass the renewal and a more pleasant and professional aviator I have yet to meet. We took off at 10:20 and landed at 11:55. I was shattered and had been put through my paces, but I had demonstrated that I was confident and safe and grinned from the moment he told me had finished until the following night.
On Sunday, December 4, I began my night qualification training with High G at Blackpool Airport. We were blessed with clear, cold skies and unlimited visibility as the owner and CFI taught me to not only fly his superb Robin 2120U aircraft, but to fly and operate safely at night from Blackpool Airport. Neither of us wanted to land, but we were blessed with the same weather the following day, so back I went completing my training and the course to High G’s satisfaction in just over five hours total time with 13 full stop take off and landings.
I topped my return to flying off on my birthday with a nearly two hour solo behind the new engine in the Warrior for a scenic flight to the north. Not quite 2022 minutes in 2022, but nearly ten hours in six days and the thrill I had been looking forward to for quite some time.
The purpose of these words is to demonstrate that a return to the air ,in most cases, is achievable after a forced medical absence despite the steps that must be taken and the tests that must be passed. My operation was at the upper end of debilitating, but with the help and support of the aviation community, a fabulous AME and our incredible NHS, I did it.
The medical tests cost me in the region of £1500 followed my medical and subsequent return to flying and associated fees, but I had not spent this on flying and consider it well worth it. I write this one calendar year to the day since my operation. Flying was the last thought I had as the anesthetic did as it is supposed to and I am thrilled to once again be able to share it with friends and family.
I would like to thank my incredible AME, Dr. Ian Donnan, Professor Bernard Clarke, all At Westair Engineering Barton, Instructor Phil Dobson at LAC, Examiner Sam Barnett, Group Aircraft Owners, Peter Teasdale and John Somerville and finally, Eddie Clare at High G for some of the best fun and exhilarating flying I have ever had. Each and every one of these people is dedicated to ensuring we are safe to fly and facilitating what must be one of the most magical pursuits that exist.
If you are contemplating a return to the air, then close your eyes and remember the thrill. Then, ring you AME!