Pilots have a unique perspective. Flying lets us see the world in a different way, but our passion for aviation also gives many of us a different take on medical issues. For a non-pilot, a serious medical condition might first bring up fears of dying.
For many pilots, though, diagnosis of the same medical condition might first arouse fears of not flying. There are aviators among us who may even perceive not flying as a fate worse than dying. That may be extreme, but most pilots can certainly empathize with the visceral “what-happens-to-my-medical” fear that shadows reporting any visit to a medical professional on the Airman Medical Application (otherwise known as Form 8500-8).
Truth… Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations section 67.403 expressly prohibits falsification of the Airman Medical Application. Those who possess the skills and discipline to become pilots are generally people of integrity, people who would not normally think of themselves as dishonest. Still, fear can lead to unwise decisions. Even though most conditions can be certified, the loss-of-medical concern has prompted some pilots to be less than truthful on the Form 8500-8.
The numbers are troubling. In a study of every fatal accident between 1993 and 2003, FAA researchers found toxicological evidence that nearly 10 percent of the 4,143 pilots in the study had a serious medical condition. Of these, only 22 percent of the medical conditions had been reported on the Airman Medical Application form. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) review of more than 20,000 aviation accidents since 1995 found 327 accidents in which impairment, incapacitation, or a medical condition were identified as causes or factors.
Just to be clear, there is no “gray area” on matters of medical certification. Form 8500-8 is a legal document. It must also be complete: Skipping Block 17 on the Form 8500-8, which asks about medications, will simply cause delays. Neither the aviation medical examiner (AME) nor the FAA’s Aerospace Medical Certification Division can process an incomplete form.
…or Consequences. An applicant who knowingly misrepresents the facts on the Airman Medical Application form faces significant penalties. These can include revocation of pilot and medical certificates, fines up to $250,000, and even imprisonment for up to five years. Though offenses that merit imprisonment are rare, they are not unknown – and they usually stem from events in which someone suffered the consequence of an accident. Last year, for example, a judge sentenced a pilot to 16 months in prison and two years of probation for repeatedly lying about his insulin-dependent diabetes on the Airman Medical Application form. In this case, the pilot experienced a diabetic seizure while flying an aircraft with four passengers aboard. The incident ended with no injuries due to the actions of a passenger who also happened to be a pilot trainee, but the penalties meted out to the pilot reflect the narrowly averted potential for disastrous consequences.
A pilot performing wolf survey flights for a state natural resources department was not as fortunate. The investigation into his fatal accident revealed no problems with the aircraft, but the pilot’s medical conditions included both diabetes and congestive heart disease – both of which he had consistently failed to report on the Airman Medical Application form. The NTSB concluded that pilot incapacitation was the probable cause of this accident, with false information on the Form 8500-8 listed as a contributing factor.
Cover-Ups Don’t Work. A final caution: It is something of a cliché that cover-up attempts are rarely successful, and that the consequences of a cover-up can sometimes be worse than those resulting from the original misdeed. Such is also the case in medical certification. Remember that your signature on the Form 8500-8 authorizes the FAA to search the National Driver’s Registry for violations involving alcohol or illegal drugs, which means that failing to disclose a conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), or driving while intoxicated (DWI) will put you at risk for sanctions far worse than those associated with reporting such violations.
In the event of an accident or incident, there is also the possibility that toxicology reports, e.g., blood and urine samples, will clearly testify to a condition that the pilot failed to report. In another instance, a cooperative effort between FAA and the Inspectors General from the Department of Transportation and the Social Security Administration called Operation Safe Pilot uncovered cases in which some pilots were fraudulently collecting 100 percent Social Security disability benefits and/or falsifying FAA medical applications. Measures implemented to address this issue included modifying the Form 8500-8 to add a question about receipt of any form of disability compensation and adding a notice stating that the pilot’s signature authorizes the FAA to compare Form 8500-8 data with information from agencies that might be providing disability benefits.
Strategies for Certification Success. Now that we’ve talked about what not to do, here are some steps you can take to enhance your prospects for honestly and legally getting your FAA medical certificate if your health is an issue.
Get the facts. Use the many resources available these days to learn as much as you can about the certification implications of your particular medical condition. A good place to start is the medical certification home page on the FAA’s Web site (http://www.faa.gov/pilots/medical/). You can also access the FAA MedXpress form from this page.
Use your resources. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and many other aviation organizations provide medical certification information, advice, and advocacy for their members.
Resolve the problem. If your fact-finding research gives you any reason to believe that your medical issue might be disqualifying, delay your visit to the AME. Instead, work with your physician to resolve the issue.
Document, document, document. Your fact-finding research should include learning exactly what the FAA needs to certify your condition. As you work with your physician, be sure to have him/her document the specifics of your condition, your treatment, and your prognosis in precisely the format and level of detail that the FAA requires.
Doing your part will speed the FAA’s evaluation and get you back into the cockpit as quickly as possible. Just remember, honesty is the only policy. (FAA Aviation News – JanFeb 2009)