Probable Cause #64: Healthy Respect
This article originally appeared in Aviation Safety, July 2006.If asked, the FAA would probably say that the most-violated FARs involve serving as a pilot-in-command without the required recent experience for the operation, or the ubiquitous "careless and reckless" offense. After all, they might reason, the system is designed to prevent accidents or incidents, so if there's an accident or incident, someone must have been careless and reckless. But I would disagree with that answer and, instead, maintain that the most-violated FARs have to do with medical certification and, specifically, reporting to the FAA any changes in a pilot's health. Think about it: Do you really tell the FAA about every visit you make to a physician during the preceding two years? Even that short bout you had with the flu last February and the Viagra refill to get the summer started off right? I didn't think so. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of pilots don't report to the FAA all of the medical changes and challenges required by the regulations. Most of the time, that's not an issue, and helps unclog the FAA's medical certification process while not harming aviation safety in the slightest. Too, the FAA has well-earned its reputation for making its medical exemption and re-certification processes about as difficult to navigate as, say, the New York TRACON on a Friday evening. I would hasten to add, however, that the process has seemingly improved in recent years and, every so often, we hear miraculous tales of pilots receiving their new medical certificates much more quickly than anyone thought possible. Still, pilots routinely hide from the FAA just about any change in their health for fear of losing their ticket. Given how the FAA has created an adversarial relationship between it and pilots, withholding such information should have been expected. But one result shouldn't be pilots who withhold relevant health-related information from themselves. What I mean by this is that pilots sometimes are their own worst enemy when it comes to accurately assessing physical preparedness for their next flight. We've all heard countless tales of solo pilots falling asleep in the cockpit and flying with other medical transgressions. While we don't hear about the flights that got cancelled because the pilot "just didn't feel like it," we hear too much about how the aging process can make a bold pilot quiver in the face of the FAA's bureaucracy. The easy way out is similar to our top three ways of dealing with thunderstorms: avoid, avoid, avoid. The trick is knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. We've all not been feeling our best when departing on a flight. Maybe we felt better by the time we landed; maybe we felt worse. Most of the time, what our body was trying to tell us was inconsequential. Sometimes, that message is important -- we'd be willing to guess many unexplained accidents could involve a pilot's medical condition. Here's an instance where a pilot knew he had a medical problem and, according to the NTSB at least, it's what did him in.