Dropping the Third Class Medical: Good Idea?
Is it time to eliminate the Third Class medical requirement? Reader Steve Waechter wrote me last week to remind me that I promised to lend support to this idea. So I'm following up to do just that. But to tell you the truth, I'm not as sure about this as others seem to be. As you may know, Potomac Airfield owner David Wartofsky has petitioned the FAA to consider this proposal. His idea is that for pilots flying aircraft under 6000 pounds, no medical should be required for private-use flying. Here are some details.
The idea here is two-fold. One is that only a small percentage of accidents—under one percent—are the result of pilot impairment and, second, you self-certify between medicals anyway, so what good do the examinations really do? Not much, I'd guess. I have two misgivings. The first is how pilots do the self-certification game, the second has to do with unintended consequences.
Following the SAFE conference in Atlanta two weeks ago, I spent a number of hours poring over NTSB accident reports. According to my sweep, pilot incapacitation or medical issues comes up more often than one percent. "Comes up" means that it's mentioned in the factual, but is not necessarily determinative. Conversely, it could be just as true that some accidents in which incapacitation isn't mentioned may very well have been caused by a medically unfit pilot. I think NTSB investigations just lack the granularity to nail these things down accurately.
Furthermore, pilots don't always do the best job of self-certification. They fly while using medications that either aren't approved or are debilitating, they fly with conditions that wouldn't get past even a Third Class exam and everyone knows a basic survival rule is to never have your family doc and AME be the same guy.
All of this is to say I think pilot incapacitation is a slightly larger safety issue than it's made out to be, but not so large as to justify the large bureaucracy and expense necessary to maintain the Third Class, at least to current standards. Because of the way some—maybe most—pilots self-certify, it's just not clear to me that the Third Class exam makes much difference. You can hide stuff from your AME, but you can't hide it from yourself. And you fly anyway. So what's the point?
But if the Third Class goes away, there will be immediate and substantial impact on the LSA market and that's the unintended consequence. Although the LSA idea was conceived to bring new people into aviation at lower costs, what it is in fact doing is keeping older pilots in the cockpit longer because they don't need to sweat the medical. Nearly every LSA manufacturer we've talked to relies heavily on the "full-circle" older buyer who is cashing out a Bonanza or Skylane and continuing on with an LSA. "If the Third Class is dropped," Frank Woodward at Eastman Aviation told me last month, "we are out of business."
Absurd as it sounds, we have built an entire aviation segment—and not a very strong one, yet—on the fear of FAA medical certification. That just doesn't make sense to me, so I reluctantly conclude that it's time to sunset the Third Class. One way of doing it might be to relax the standards for a few years before eliminating it entirely.
But either way, it's not going to be the free ride some people imagine it to be.