Know Your FAA Doctor

When the movie Top Gun was released everyone wanted to become a military fighter pilot. Numerous people attempted to join the military with the goal of becoming the next Top Gun instructor.  First you needed to be smart and college educated.  Next was the military physical.  You need perfect vision and no health issues.

There is a perception that as a civilian pilot perfect vision and health are a requirement.  This is not the case.  Vision can be corrected with glasses or Lasik surgery.  High blood pressure can be controlled by medication.  There are numerous other issues that can be controlled and are acceptable to the FAA and are perfectly safe.

When you start out as a student pilot, your student pilot’s license is your first medical certificate.  This doesn’t certify anything other than the fact that an FAA designated medical examiner has certified you fit to fly.  This is usually a 3rd class medical that is required every 2-5 years, depending on your age.

As you progress through the different licenses, private, instrument, commercial and multi-engine you are now considering a career as some sort of a pilot.  At some point you will attempt to get a First Class Medical which is what is required as an airline captain. The First Class Medical is very similar to the third class that you received as a student pilot.  The major difference is that it is only good for 6-12 months then downgrades to a second class medical for a year and then 3rd class for the remaining two year period.  At this point, not working as a pilot there is no need to pay for and get a new first class medical every six months.

Get Those Recommendations

During this time of learning how to fly you will meet others with the same goals and will make or receive recommendations on different doctors.  Some are more stringent than others.  Some will be very hard on vision.  Doing the actual testing for near and far vision.  Color vision, depth perception as well as numerous other tests.  Some will check your blood pressure with a sleeve and others will want an entire stress test.  Some will poke and prod more than others.

Talk to any airline captain and he will have a recommendation for a doctor.  This comes from years of experience some good and some bad.  I as a captain pay the doctor for my medical and it can get expensive.  After age 40 an EKG is required once a year (you have to get a baseline EKG done at age 35).

Every six months I go to my designated FAA doctor for a medical.  He knows me very well.  I have been his patient for the past 20 years.  He asks me to look at the vision chart and asks it I can see it OK.  Sometimes he will ask, ‘what is the smallest line that I can read with both eyes. He usually takes my blood pressure.  If it is a little high he assumes that it is because I’m in the doctor’s office.  His goal is to make sure that I am OK and he is checking my mental state through questioning.

The six month physical is a requirement of my job but is also very stressful as the doctor has the ability to end my career by rejecting my medical certificate.  My doctor and many of the better ones will and are able to fight for you if something disqualifying happens to you.  They will get the proper documentation to justify to the FAA that you are still fit to fly and they know the regional doctor and what he or she requires and how best to ensure you keep that medical, if you are safe.

Others have horror stories of doctors who didn’t understand the rules and withhold your medical based on something that wasn’t required or was difficult to refute.  This subjects you to months of paperwork and hassles.  During that time, you can’t fly and, for many of us, that means going without a pay check.  You want a doctor who knows the requirements, how they apply to you and the impact that their decisions has on your livelihood.

Next month is the month that my flight physical is due.  I will schedule it early.  Not too close to the end in case there is a problem.  My vision has been deteriorating over the years.  Reading vision is good in bright light with black and white paper and lettering but put me in a dimly lit room with brown lettering on tan paper and I can’t read it.  In a restaurant for dinner I can’t read the menu.  I now have reading glasses for the times that I need them but no requirement on my medical certificate for them and plan on keeping it that way.  I had a laser incident in the cockpit years ago that also sometime affects my vision but still able to get through my flight physical.  My blood pressure is high but under control by medication.  I now have 12 years left until mandatory retirement and that means only 24 more flight physicals in my career.  My goal is to make it through my career with this phrase on my medical “Limitations NONE.”


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