The Dark Side Of BasicMed

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A few weeks ago, I spewed for a few hundred words on gear-up landings and this month I’ve been continuing the research. Just ask me about gear-up landings. Ask anything. I’m about to write a book. You’ll be enthralled.

As I was trudging through this, I finally got to the insurance angle and my colleague, Jon Doolittle, dug up some nuggets from insurance underwriters. One of them I was hoping I would never hear but knew was inevitable is this: Insurers are bracing themselves for a round of claims related to the fact that, for all its peachy-keen greatness, BasicMed will likely result in a rash of claims related to older pilots being kept in the cockpit who shouldn’t be.

There, I’ve said it, tossing the proverbial bolus into the punch bowl. Bracing and rash are probably too strong here. But let’s just say insurers have their antennas tuned for an uptick in accident claims. I think they’re right, but I also think it will be sporadic and difficult to track. I have reasons for thinking this and they all relate to the fact that I have always been the center of my own universe, my experience absolutely reflects undeniable truth and I’m never going to change. Readers who disagree should get their own blogs.

My theory, based on personal observation, is this: Take 10 pilots who are approaching “that age.” Seven out of the 10 will X themselves out, either because of money, lack of interest, family pressure or the self-realization that they’re no longer fit to fly. Some won’t be able to find parts for their 1956 Cessnas. Others will be found trying to slash their wrists with ADS-B blade antennas and will be escorted to somewhere where they can be supervised. 

That leaves three. Two of the three—or maybe it’s a little less, I dunno—are the kinds of guys who can fly until they’re 100 and be relatively safe. I’m sure you know people like this. I’ve certainly encountered them. They seem to smoke and drink a lot.

So that leaves one in 10—or maybe a little less, I dunno—who isn’t fit to fly and either doesn’t know it or won’t admit it, and just wants to keep a hand in. They may be missing a step or two, but that doesn’t mean they’re a crater looking for a grid reference. Just because things look bad, doesn’t mean they are. I will readily concede that taxiing away with a cinderblock attached to the tail tiedown and a walker on the wing is a strong indication of a problem. (I saw the former; made up the latter.)

But some percentage of those guys—half or maybe less, I dunno—will get into accidents and there may be just enough of them to be barely discernible in the insurance data. They will plug this into spreadsheets and perform regression analysis and realize, holy %^$%, these old guys are killing us. We’ll see and hopefully it won’t be obscured by the warm golden glow of BasicMed. It could just as easily not happen at all.

So, not to bore you with further theoretical ramblings based on my personal sociological observations of pilots, let me just say this: Consider this blog a kind of physic dead man’s switch. Now I know I’m perfectly OK and will be for decades to come, but how about you? You’re not one of those guys the underwriters are worried about, are you?

I didn’t think so. 

Comments (31)

Paul, I suspect this is one reason why BasicMed was so difficult to get passed in the first place. The FAA sees the same demographic data you do and shudders at the thought of all the geriatrics putting around with their flaps (or other things) down. Insurance underwriters, being even less optimistic that the feds, are similarly alarmed. But, their thirst for premium dollars usually overcomes their better judgment and they go along. (I know, I was one).

I'm with you: I'm okay, but I am worried about all those other geezers our there. If only they could perfect that self-flying airplane....

Posted by: John McNamee | August 31, 2017 4:09 PM    Report this comment

It seems "mind reader" needs to be added to your list of skills, since I was just thinking about this topic. I just found out that the Senator of my state sent a letter to the FAA Administrator demanding answers to questions about what is being done to improve the safety of General Aviation, one of which talks about medical certification. It doesn't help that there have been a number of recent GA accidents in my state, most of which included at least one fatality (though it doesn't appear any are a result of medical incapacitation).

On the subject of older pilots staying in the cockpit longer than they should as a result of BasicMed, I suspect that the majority of those ending up in a accident report will have more to do with declining hand-eye coordination and cognitive skills that are not tested for in a 3rd-class (or even 2nd-class and 1st-class, for that matter) medical, than an actual medical condition. I foresee BasicMed being only a secondary factor in that those same pilots would have needed a special issuance and simply didn't want to deal with (or couldn't afford) the medically unnecessary tests required, but still would have passed.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 31, 2017 4:16 PM    Report this comment

To this brew, we might want to consider that a significant fraction of BasicMed pilots may be RESUMING their flying, as contrasted with CONTINUING it, uninterrupted. This "rusty pilot" syndrome recently has been the subject of much interest, both with the FAA and with AOPA.

I haven't yet encountered an influx of BasicMed pilots who are seeking a first-in-a-while Flight Review, but I won't be surprised if I do.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | August 31, 2017 6:02 PM    Report this comment

The FAA is considering grounding all parachutists older than 50. Anyone who has jumped and broken any bones will be barred from even entering a GA light sport airplane. THERE ... I said it.

I'm with Gary. Most pilots "know" when it's time. The few who don't would likely just buy an airplane (or keep the one they have) and fly without a medical.

Let's not invent problems that don't exist. Cross the bridge when you come to it. We have enough well intentioned people killing GA as it is.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 31, 2017 10:35 PM    Report this comment

Am I the only one who read the title and thought the blog was about the "drop your pants and bend over" part of the exam?

Posted by: Dennis Lou | August 31, 2017 10:38 PM    Report this comment

Anyone over 104 should really consider setting personal limits. Maybe hire a CFI or fly with someone somewhat younger and to a moderate extent perhaps more agile and unhandicapped. Just sayin!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 31, 2017 11:49 PM    Report this comment

As a CFI-G I am always reminding my students what "self certify" exposes them too. The burden falls on the pilot to be "OK physically" to fly. We do not even need a driver's license to fly sailplanes. 14 CFR 61.53 - Prohibition on operations during medical deficiency:This CFR becomes the key to any accident investigation. Improper drugs, illness, fatigue, and other physically impairing condition all rely on the pilot in command's judgement and is subject to a second guess by the investigating authority. IAMSAFE helps but understand what you are "self certifying".
Rich Flowers

Posted by: Richard Flowers | September 1, 2017 7:38 AM    Report this comment

"I haven't yet encountered an influx of BasicMed pilots who are seeking a first-in-a-while Flight Review, but I won't be surprised if I do."

We already had at least one BasicMed pilot return from an 8-year flying hiatus (and then promptly did some solo night flying and took on a 500nm cross-country, all from just a 1.5hr/1.2hr ground/air flight review - the type of decision making that gives me heartburn) in my flying club. BasicMed only provided this pilot with a simpler way to get medically certified, but he almost certainly would have passed a 3rd-class too. And I suspect we will get still more members returning to the cockpit thanks to the simplicity of BasicMed (not that I'm complaining - our flight hours are about half of what it was even just 2 years ago).

To me, that's the downside to BasicMed: the 3rd-class medical certification was simply a hurdle that many pilots got tired of jumping over, but that hurdle was enough to keep some pilots that I felt had the wrong attitude toward flying away from the cockpit. Now that artificial hurdle (artificial, because there was never anything medically disqualifying with these pilots) is gone. The accident rate MAY tick up as a result, but it will have almost nothing to do with medical qualification.

The real issue is still pilot training. Unless the GA pilot community as a whole decides to seriously focus on becoming better aviators (as opposed to simply "pilots"), no amount of regulation will improve safety at this point. All it will do is drive more pilots away from the cockpit and further reduce the GA community. There needs to be more carrots to get these pilots to focus on improving their skills; sticks are rarely an effective means to improve behavior.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 1, 2017 8:25 AM    Report this comment

It is interesting that people (non-pilots) think nothing of the 50,000 pound Class A Diesel Pusher motorhome barreling along the highway inches from their sideview mirror hauling 150 gallons of "Jet A" being driven by Gramps along with Grandma and the grandkids, towing a SUV yet obsess about a 2000 pound Cessna with 40 gallons of 100LL falling out of the sky on top of them while sitting in the RV Park by the lake.

Posted by: RANDI ERNST | September 1, 2017 8:29 AM    Report this comment

Randi, that's exactly the point. Medical certification, especially for small non-commercial airplanes, is a "solution" to a non-existent problem. In fact, it's probably detrimental to overall health, as the FAA's "gotcha" policies and seemingly irrational evaluations of certain conditions are a strong disincentive for pilots to seek medical attention for potentially serious issues. Even professional pilots face that dilemma, with the added disincentive that seeking medical attention may terminate their career and jeopardize their family's financial security, not just bar them from their favorite pastime.

A full-size SUV or truck pulling a trailer, a U-Haul, a motorhome... all of these present a far higher risk exposure to those not in that vehicle than the average light airplane.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | September 1, 2017 8:52 AM    Report this comment

Lest we forget that so many of said group of older pilots had already switched to LSA.
I don't think that you can make a reasonable theoretical argument that there will be an accident uptick for people flying 172's when there was no uptick when the same group flew 162's the last 10 years. If anything, the original group of older LSA pilots should have been the theoretical worst case scenario for an increase in age related accidents. To my knowledge, they were just as safe (if not more so) as younger pilots.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 1, 2017 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Ironic that you talk about "...slashing their wrists with ADS-B antennas." I'm a month into an ADS-B install and I still haven't collected all the necessary STC documents or powered on my box for a bench test. And my airplane is apart and unairworthy awaiting installation of the antenna. The decision to equip is now becoming a giant cement block around my neck. Talk about 'disincentive!'

Gary B, Randi E and Rober G-M have hit the problem on the head. Training IS an issue but we ALL know that nothing is 100% efficient or perfect. The 3rd class didn't do a darned thing to keep unqualified pilots from flying ... it was a hurdle that everyone had to jump over and was more a disincentive to flying than insurance to keep things safe from a few knuckleheads. As Robert G-M says, it's a solution to a non-existent (or different) problem. HEY! Isn't that the same issue with privatization of ATC?

Remember when there weren't Flight Reviews ... then there were. So what did the FR do for us other than add still one more hurdle we've hopped over. Bad pilots are probably on their best behavior and good ones don't need it anyhow. All it did was ensure CFI's have work, mostly.

Once I knew that I didn't have to get a myocardial infarction every other year fearing my 3rd class medical exam, I sought out a GOOD Doc, had a good heart to heart and now I feel as if I've been given a license to be honest about my (minor) medical issues while at the same time being legal under the FAR's. I was one of 'em who shunned Doc's fearing that something would be uncovered and I'd either have to lie OR go without. BasicMed made that all better for me. It's providing a path to be legal AND get medical attention, as required.

Now then ... I gotta go hitch up my toy hauler to my 45' RV ... I'm heading to the septuagenarian convention in The Villages. I hear they're having BINGO this year.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 1, 2017 10:02 AM    Report this comment

"To my knowledge, they were just as safe (if not more so) as younger pilots."

If you base your knowledge on limited data, you can draw any conclusion you like. The insurers dump this stuff into actuarial tables and have data the FAA and NTSB lack. In all the research I've done with the insurers, there wasn't enough compelling evidence to suggest claims went up--or up meaningfully--as a result of migration to LSA by age cohorts. Even if they had, the underwriters would have adjusted premiums to compensate and motored on. NTSB data showed no bump, but the age data is murky. We're pretty sure fatal accidents didn't rise because that data is more reliable.

The larger reality is that there are more aviation underwriters than ever, premiums are soft and highly competitive. My gut feel is there won't be a noticeable uptick worthy of mention. But we'll see. Flying an LSA and flying a high-performance retrac are different risk models. The underwriters will watch it closely. They're the canary in the mineshaft, not the FAA or NTSB.

Oh, and Larry, by the way, when the nurse is wiping the dribbled oat meal off your chin, I'll still be doing six team jumps on Saturday. I got an e-mail this morning thanking me for writing this blog because as a doc with a medical condition, he thought it should be confronted from time to time. And bluntly.

No one is inventing problems that don't exist. This is more an individual problem than a collective one. But with the freedom BasicMed offers, comes responsibility, too. We all need to look in the mirror. Frequently. So I feel it my duty to write about it occasionally, with a little humor. I'll continue until I get sick of this gig. Would could be next week.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 1, 2017 10:12 AM    Report this comment

"I was one of 'em who shunned Doc's fearing that something would be uncovered and I'd either have to lie OR go without. BasicMed made that all better for me. It's providing a path to be legal AND get medical attention, as required. "

Even for me, that has been true. My last two 3rd-classes required me to provide so much documentation to the FAA that it was ridiculous. And that was for a regular 3rd-class that's good for 5 years for me (not even a special issuance). The irony is that I know people who have passed 3rd-class exams without issue when they probably shouldn't have. Unfortunately, one of those pilots is no longer with us (he collapsed shortly after parking the plane and couldn't be revived). My 3rd is still valid for another 4 years, but since I'm going for an annual physical at the end of this year, I'm going to bring the BasicMed paperwork with me anyway. The nice thing is that there's literally no downside to it: I can still fly with my 3rd-class until it expires, and if my doc fills out the BasicMed form, I can fly under those rules too if I so desire. It's just coincidental that both will expire around the same time, so I'll decide then if I still want to jump through Oklahoma City's hoops for a 3rd-class (and by then, hopefully BasicMed will be accepted in Canada).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 1, 2017 10:38 AM    Report this comment

Well ... I agree with your "responsibility" last paragraph comment.

At Airventure ... I went back and forth between vendor booths and the FAA hangar seeking clarification of ADS-B "anonymity." Finally, at the FAA hangar, I got with a fairly savvy 'Fed' and we talked about an alternative way to achieve anonymity ... using the O-F-F function hiding in every transponder. He agreed that it was a way to do it but added that the FAA can't be everywhere all the time. That the system relied on individual conformance and responsibility to the FARs. Seems simple enough but I took strong note of it for my own position. That's why I'm trying to cross the 'T's' and dot the 'I's' seeking every document referenced in the STC's for my ADS-B install.

...oooOOPs ... drat ... I spilled my oatmeal ... again :-(

Don't you DARE go away on us ... you have invented a subset of the pilot population addicted to your journalistic style ... we're HOOKED!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 1, 2017 10:44 AM    Report this comment

I try to not hold the younger crowds inexperience against them. I would hope they would not hold my age against me, Basic Med or otherwise.

Posted by: Manny Puerta | September 1, 2017 11:09 AM    Report this comment

"If you base your knowledge on limited data, you can draw any conclusion you like. The insurers dump this stuff into actuarial tables and have data the FAA and NTSB lack. In all the research I've done with the insurers, there wasn't enough compelling evidence to suggest claims went up--or up meaningfully--as a result of migration to LSA by age cohorts. Even if they had, the underwriters would have adjusted premiums to compensate and motored on. NTSB data showed no bump, but the age data is murky. We're pretty sure fatal accidents didn't rise because that data is more reliable."

Then Fraser's comment was apparently correct.

There is more light than dark with BasicMed. Many who have been obtaining the often onerous, annual, special issue third class med now can simplify the process with Basic Med. In my opinion, flying an airplane over 1300# with more capability than an LSA is a safer proposition. I dinky, underpowered LSA with less capabilty does not make a safer plane/pilot combination. I'll take my 185 over an LSA any day.

Posted by: Manny Puerta | September 1, 2017 11:29 AM    Report this comment

....dinky, underpowered LSA with less capability does not make a safer plane/pilot combination...

Where can I find the data that supports that statement? I was always taught that teaching in light planes like Aeroncas and Cubs taught great stick and rudder skills. You actually fly the plane instead of driving it along. Cross winds taught good cross control techniques., etc.

Posted by: jay Manor | September 1, 2017 2:06 PM    Report this comment

We've already done the test. Sport Pilot doesn't even require BasicMed. No discernable increase in the accident rate at all. And no discernable increase in handwringing when old Sport Pilots have made smoking holes.

The really scary thing, from a handwringing point of view, is all those airplanes I see at the airport with a sign on the side that says EXPERIMENTAL. Honestly, if the public can accept that, BasicMed will be a cakewalk.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | September 1, 2017 2:31 PM    Report this comment

We've already done the experiment, running, what, 13 years now? Sport Pilot was far more extreme than BasicMed, in selecting for any pilots who might have really problematic medical conditions, and there was no discernable impact (pun intended) at all.

Yes, there's always the potential for a handwringing politician. But, I notice a bunch of planes at the airport that say EXPERIMENTAL on the side. That seems like a much bigger handwringing target than BasicMed.

Manny, I'm kinda with Jay on this one. Horses for courses. Your 185 will be better in some situations - it's faster, and a better load carrier, and a smoother ride in turbulence, and therefore a better instrument platform. All good things. But you'll learn flying skills in an LSA, because you can feel what's happening. I've been in Cessnas where full yoke deflection could not stop the turbulence-induced roll; it's never happened to me in an LSA - they mostly have near-aerobatic roll rates. If the engine stops, an LSA will arrive at 35 kt (less, if you can find a headwind), the 185 at 54. Try looking out the window someday when you're on the runway at 35 kt - it's very slow. In an off-airport landing, speed kills. Finally, the "impossible turn" zone is much, much, much smaller for an LSA than for a 185 - on most American runways, by the time the LSA has traveled far enough that it can't land on the runway still in front, there's a good chance it's already high enough to turn back (although, let's not experiment with that, without a lot of testing at altitude first, people!)

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | September 1, 2017 2:45 PM    Report this comment

Sorry about the double post. The page reloaded while I was writing the first one, and I didn't realize it had posted.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | September 1, 2017 2:46 PM    Report this comment

Really... the BFR, if the instructor is paying attention at all, will catch skills declining with age way better than the 3rd class medical. No amount of trying to be on your best behavior will cover up substandard vision, hand-eye coordination, mobility, and similar stuff. And the pilot is evaluated in the context of flying an airplane, not some arbitrary set of tests. If there's an attitude or decision-making problem, it's just as easy to hide from an AME than an instructor, maybe easier.

Posted by: Andy Goldstein | September 1, 2017 3:07 PM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli, you are respected aviation journalist. An educated and creative wordsmith. Larry is correct ... we're hooked!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 2, 2017 12:53 AM    Report this comment

HEY ... RAF ... you're using that "respected" term a bit loosely, ain't ya. :-)

Manny said it best ... "there is more light than dark in BasicMed." And, I also will take my 172 over an LSA (especially an S-LSA) ... all day long. When I can't fly it ... I'm done.

Andy, with respect to my earlier comment about pilots being on their best behavior during a FR ... I not referring to medical, psychomotor or mental skills ... although that is sorta the jest of this blog. I referring to flying the pattern correctly, holding altitude, managing the airplane and otherwise demonstrating you have your "Mojo." You know, the stuff we all know is 'right' but usually don't do.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 2, 2017 10:54 AM    Report this comment

"If you base your knowledge on limited data, you can draw any conclusion you like. "

I'll base my knowledge on similar experiences.
It's similar to the theory that allowing law abiding citizens to concealed carry will lead to blood in the streets. Even after years of data that shows otherwise, some won't let go of their theory that doom will follow. The same with 10+ years of LSA and we don't have old people falling from the skies yet some have this fear that doom will come with basic med. Experience leads me the believe that most fears are overblown.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 2, 2017 12:37 PM    Report this comment

Saaaaaay ... does that apply to drones, too? Didn't 'da man' tell us that we were overblowing that fear, as well? What "data" was used in that conclusion?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 2, 2017 3:45 PM    Report this comment

With apologies to Carl Sagan, billions and billions and billions of birds, without proportional accompanying aluminum precipitation. That's the data.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | September 2, 2017 7:08 PM    Report this comment

"It's similar to the theory that allowing law abiding citizens to concealed carry will lead to blood in the streets."

Not it isn't. It's the diametric opposite. The context is impact on the insurance business, not accidents. (Or gun shot deaths.) This is because insurers routinely pay claims on damage that isn't reported as an accident. If someone is shot on the streets, there's a pretty good chance it'll get tracked in an accessible record somewhere and you'll have a metric.

In researching gear-ups, it becomes obvious that most or certainly many of them are not documented in NTSB records, as per what insurers tell us. I found at least four that weren't and there are many more. But they are documented by insurers because they pay the bills, an average of $60,000 to $90,000 per. These don't have to be reported and routinely are not reported.

Gear-ups are the small potatoes. All manor of ground loops, excursions, ground collisions and so on also don't find public note. The insurers pay. So the point is that insurers are telling us they're watching the actuarial data for a trend ignited by older pilots staying in the game under BasicMed. If the trend is sharp enough, it will impact premiums and ability to obtain coverage for older pilots.

You have no clue about any of this because unless you're in the insurance business, you don't have the data to judge it. I'm not in the insurance business so I have no clue either. All I can do is ask. The global view for now is that insurance is sufficiently competitive to suppress premium impacts as a consequence of higher losses.

My view is that it probably will not, because the trend won't be that strong. But the point I tried to make is that insurers are watching it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 3, 2017 5:03 AM    Report this comment

"What "data" was used in that conclusion?"

List the midair collisions between drones and manned aircraft.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 3, 2017 5:06 AM    Report this comment

My point EXACTLY. I can't. So how is the title of this blog any more relevant -- at this 'early' stage of the game? BasicMed is an alternative path to meet medical requirements for a subset of the pilot population who are flying recreationally and helping keep the aging pilot population in the game, if appropriate ... just like Light Sport If nothing else, it's a well intentioned experiment. Let's let it play out before we use negative connotations with respect to it.

Your next blog subject matter fits hand-and-glove into it. Which comes first, a withering pilot population or high FBO costs? Your past blogs on drones -- likewise -- fits into the discussion. You've convinced me that until drones start taking out airplanes that the fear and gnashing over them is all aviation hyperbole.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 4, 2017 4:38 AM    Report this comment

I think the author overlooks several facts.

First and foremost, however you get your medical, you're still a pilot and you're still subject to flight reviews every 24 months. Are we to believe that there's a vast conspiracy of CFI's that look the other way, signing off poorly qualified pilots?

The other side of the equation is that it's not like the Third Class medical is so perfect. Assuming you don't have some horrible medical condition, you often find yourself in front of a doctor that's never met you, and he's going to make a determination based on a short exam whether you're fit to fly. Honestly, I'd rather take my chances with my personal physician that's known me for years and is totally aware of my health me, his signature on my BasicMed forms means more than someone that shops around to find an AME that will sign you off for a $200 fee.

Posted by: Vincent Re | September 5, 2017 8:09 AM    Report this comment

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