This recent article that came out in The Washington Post had some pretty disturbing information. I want to share some of the pilot medical facts and also break down some of these factors. (My recent national news broadcasts videos are at the end along with the The Washington Post article)
There are three categories of medical exams for us pilots. First, second, and third class is how these are classified. We must be examined by an AME – Airmen Medical Examiner who is an M.D. trained and certified by the FAA medical department. If you are a private pilot who flies for enjoyment and takes a small amount of passengers up for fun, you are required to pass a third class medical every 24 months. If you are a commercially trained and rated pilot, meaning that you are allowed to get paid for operating professionally, whether you fly small cargo planes, charters, banner towers, crop dusting, or as a co-pilot on mid sized aircraft or larger domestic only operations, you are required to pass a second class medical every 12 months. This is more restrictive than a third class medical. There are specific criteria the FAA medical department sets forth as to what is medically allowed and what is not. If you operate as a captain of a larger aircraft or fly internationally (for in case a co-pilot needs to fill in for the captain), we need to pass a first class medical every 6 months. These include testing for EKGs, urine, sight, sound, general cognitive function, vestibular acuity, etc. and are much more restrictive.
When we have our medical exams, there is an extensive questionnaire that specifically says on it that if we answer anything with a false statement on this government document it is considered fraud and punishable by law. As pilots, we are people of integrity and our word is life. If we miscommunicate or do not deliver on what we say, people could die. So as you can imagine, we do not take this medical exam lightly. I personally call it career roulette. If you have too much coffee that morning, you might lose your career with one bad blip of the EKG. We are not even allowed to take cold medicine if we are not feeling up to par because anything that can affect our acuity and decision making in the slightest, we are prohibited from and we cannot work. Throughout history until recently, we were not allowed to speak even with a counselor if we were dealing with anything that would be considered mental health support. This assumption being that we had to knuckle through the death of a family member or friend at the same time as we battle in divorce at the same time we have a kid in rehab at the same time our paychecks are cut by 40% at the same time we backslid in our careers or get furloughed due to another world event.
When a pilot reports about a medical issue that is being addressed to the FAA directly, through the union, to their company, or with their AME, often we are grounded until we can get the proper FAA approved treatment (and that is only if their is something we can do). Just to be clear, many companies do not have disability plans for pilots and if they do, it may take over 3 months to actually be approved. Even when a pilot gets treatment and is cleared by both their own doctor, an FAA AME, and their own company, it may take 6-12 months due to understaffing before the FAA medical department processes and clears the pilot to return to flying status. A large majority of commercial pilots get zero pay during this time and therein lies part of the problem. The stress of not being able to put food on the table for your family when the pilot is healthy, capable, experienced, and trained is a factor that must be addressed.
Let’s talk specifics. In this Washington Post article (see link below), it discusses that 5,000 pilots did not report medical disabilities. These pilots were receiving benefits from the Veteran’s Association. Only 600 fly for large commercial airlines and all of them with the exception of 60 were cleared by the FAA medical department to continue flying. The majority were charter and corporate pilots. I will tell you, having flown for and trained by the military as a contract pilot, flying often with military pilots who served, and am married to a partially disabled veteran myself, most of these medical issues are things like back, knee, or shoulder injuries, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), etc. that are chronic conditions caused by 10-20 years working in, on, and around aircraft. The veterans should be receiving benefits from their years of service and acquired injuries in the line of duty protecting our country. This does not affect their ability to function in larger commercial aircraft. Yes, there is soreness and stiffness if we sit too long and don’t stretch or rehabilitate in our off time. When it comes to more significant issues like major heart, organ, brain, mental, neurological, etc. these are normally treated, monitored, and mostly not allowed anywhere near the flight deck. Pilots know when we are fit to fly and when we are unfit to fly and, the FAA spells this out in great detail as to what we can and cannot do medically, with and without treatments and medications.
It is critical for flight safety and passenger protection to always have TWO highly experienced, well trained pilots at the controls of the aircraft. In aviation, the reason why we have such an excellent safety record is because of redundancy. The larger aircraft have two or more engines, our main systems have multiple backups, and we as pilots are essential to the operation and are substitutive for each other. The saying, “two is better than one” is not only key, but it is critical to getting everyone safely and happily to and from our destinations!
Wishing you Blue Skies and Smooth Flights,
The Washington Post Article: