A Very Special Issuance


The expression, “Got the surprise of my life,” loses credibility when the speaker shouldn’t be that surprised, e.g., “Got the surprise of my life and passed the check ride.” Congratulations, but why surprised? When an instructor preps a client properly for an exam, then neither applicant nor examiner should be surprised at success. I’d be concerned if our DPE called after passing one of my students and said, “What a pleasant surprise that you finally sent an applicant who could pass.” 

Thank you … ?

The second part of the surprise-o-life cliché also begs careful usage. If the speaker’s life were in danger, but Death suddenly took a holiday, then yes, that could be the surprise of one’s life. In flight, I’ve brushed elbows with doom, survived, and each time—more than twice—I’ve reflected, “That was close” and, “That was stupid.” Rarely could I lay fault for my puckered-up hijinks on outside forces. All were lapses in youthful pilot judgment, although that implies I’d been exhibiting sound decision making until the moment I flew into the region of reverse sensibility. Why I’m still alive is unclear, but I am appreciative of the still-breathing option and alert for what NTSB calls, recidivistic boneheadliness.

So, it was the surprise of my life when four years ago I had a heart attack, and as the hospital admissions clerk explained that should the angioplasty prove inadequate, the doctor would crack me open like a lobster, and if that proved fatally unsuccessful, I couldn’t sue. Sign here.

I agreed because I agree to all institutional demands—Amazon, YouTube, IACRA. Then, with an IV drip fogging cognition, I got a follow-up surprise of my life. “Should I die,” I thought, alone inside a Lutheran hospital when I’d been raised Catholic, “how will this affect my second-class medical certificate?” Pilot to the last.

Spoiler alert: I lived to write about it and after cardio rehab, qualified for sport pilot privileges, meaning I could fly my Aeronca Champ but not my Citabria. From internet horror testimonials about pilots suffering through the circles of FAA Aeromedical hell when attempting to gain special dispensation, er, issuance, I chose the sporting life and was grateful for the second chance. Until my past returned to taunt me.

As kids, we rode bicycles that to us were motorcycles. Additionally, I dreamt of airplanes and handled my bike as though flying, often with arms outstretched. When I grew strong enough to pedal up the hills overlooking the Hudson River and the hazy Manhattan skyline, I’d glide back down, imagining I was slicing those New Jersey clouds above me. I’d ride to local airports—most of which have vanished beneath suburbia—to watch real airplanes fly. Then at age 14, I got the shock of, etc. Some low life stole my bicycle, my Spitfire, Mustang, Stearman, SPAD … my soul. Vittorio DeSica foreshadowed my loss in The Bicycle Thief (1948).

Gradually, kid fantasies morphed into real flight, and I was living the pilot’s dream when Death brushed past and stole my figurative bike. But after weeks of cardio rehab, and rewatching Seventh Seal for more metaphors, I was back in the air. As a grateful sport pilot, I pedaled about in my LSA-qualified Champ but soon wanted access to what the big kids flew. I decided to seek special issuance of a Class 3 medical certificate. “A bold choice,” the hooded AME, Dr Gandalf, warned in a resonant tone, while leaning on his staff that kept FAA Orcs at bay, “but fraught with danger. To fail in this quest is to lose all.” It’s a weird clinic but inexpensive with validated parking.

Compiling a package of Aeromedically approved paperwork was daunting. Stress test (Bruce Protocol), blood work, cardiologist exam and reports, plus reams of patient history files led me to think I’d made a regrettable administrative choice. I felt like a reality show contestant on Dare To Get Your Medical Back! With each hurdle cleared, another task loomed. Any misstep would allow the FAA host to unlatch a trap door and send me sluicing into the dustbin of no return where applicants lose all flying privileges.

Luckily, I had guidance from friends who knew the system better than I. Alphabetically: Brent Blue, Rick Durden, Jim Kimball, and Rick Peirce. Three are doctors and one, Rick Durden, an attorney. All are top drawer pilots. Together they ushered me through the paperwork labyrinth. Another nod goes to Corey at the Office of Aerospace Medicine in Kansas City, Missouri. Always reachable and willing to answer questions, he made the process navigable. Thank you, all.

Unleash the cliché

I got the surprise of my life when a letter with 12 pages of supporting documents arrived from Aerospace Medicine. The opening paragraph stated that since I’d had a “history of myocardial infarction,” I didn’t qualify for a medical certificate under a whole string of CFR Part 67 barbs. My repaired heart sank, until I spotted the “however” that granted “an Authorization for special issuance” under 67.401. Damn fine CFR that one. I’d passed and found my enclosed official membership card to the Jake Hollow Air Mail Pilots Secret Squadron Special Issuance Club. Cut, fold, sign, then run—not walk—to the Citabria and fly around those clouds that have fogged my brain since I was a kid. It was as though my stolen bicycle had suddenly returned.

I’ve been a pilot for 50 years and was an air traffic controller for 17. Potential revocation of medical clearance always threatened both. Had I lost my medical as a controller, I could’ve left the FAA with a medical retirement. Damage from losing pilot privileges, by contrast, comes with no consolation prize and worms deeper into the thing that is the kid who willed his bicycle to have wings. Once again, it does. When my special issuance expires, I’ll back-pedal to Basic Med; it’s all I need.

As for the jerk who stole my bike in 1968, this ain’t over….

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  1. Congratulations Paul! Tell me – does the Special Issuance Certificate have a little coupon thing surrounded by a dashed borders reading “Get Out Of 3rd Class Medicals Free” to be kept and redeemed as needed at the BasicMed window? Your Citabria awaits, sir. You’ll find your monocle and top hat on the seat.

    The perp is still out there somewhere, riding your bike, and I’m certain you’ll spot him one day. You never forget a bike. I’ve heard from very reliable sources that Champs either/or Citabrias make great platforms for precision drops of … >ahem< … WATER balloons.

  2. Paul congratulations. I too have been there and done that. In the ambulance to the hospital for open heart surgery, I worried about losing my medical, assuming I was still alive tomorrow. Afterwards, It was a journey to get the special issuance certificate for a few years, but now having Basic Med was worth the effort.

  3. Congrats, and may the Force be with you through any future bureaucratic conflicts during many more years of enjoying the skies.

    Sadly though, decisions do eventually loom for us all. My just-renewed 3rd class takes me to 85. I might go for one more, but will it be worth it? My wife is no longer physically able to get in & out of the plane, so the travels we enjoyed so much are history. Add insurance hassles, cost and effort of maintaining the plane…how long will the enjoyment of simply taking to the skies still balance it all out? TBD, but a medical issuance problem would definitely be “the sign”.

  4. I’ve been on the special issuance for 10+ years. Initially with a First class and now a Second class since I’m still giving rides. I always have my family Dr physical a month or so prior to my FAA physical so I know what I might trip on when i get to the AME. So far no catastrophic events have popped up, closing in on the 50 year mark.
    The letter from the FAA always makes my heart race a little when it says you don’t qualify except for 67.401. But we will see you in next year to jump through the hoops once again.
    Yep, I had my Bike stolen in Forest Park Ill at about the same age.
    My big brother got it back within a few days.

  5. While holding a fairly new class 2, I was advised after an almost accidental heart issue discovery, “you have a 95% blockage and need at least a triple bypass!” as I came more alert from the angiogram. However, after the event, I decided to not roll the dice on a SI and fly light sport only, being a Chief owner. My hanger neighbor, a recently retired FedEx Captain, and while holding a very current Class 2 and flying all over in his Aztec, while waiting for an oil change at the local Ford dealership, had a massive heart attack and fell over dead. Unless you get an angiogram or at least a nuclear stress test with each physical, the physical actual means very little regarding cardiac health.

  6. Technical and FAA issues aside–Berge has again managed to educate (and ENTERTAIN!) us with a well-written column. The many side issues (Basic Med, contemplating Catholic/Protestant beliefs, stolen bicycles, the Special Issuance process, contemplating one’s own demise, existentialism, and other obscure metaphors and bon mots) give context to the story.

    Congratulations (AGAIN) on another well-written article! Berge and Bertorelli are my favorite (living) aviation authors.

    I’d like to see them (separately) each take on a single subject each month to compare their comparative outlooks (though it has been hinted that they are one and the same!) (laugh) It WOULD BE ENTERTAINING!

  7. While it is true that I was in the area frequently during 1968, I can guarantee you that I don’t know nuthin’ bout no bicycle. One less avenue you have to pursue. You’re welcome. I’ll check with my crew and let you know if I find anything.

    Butt seriously…

    Congratulations on regaining your medical! And the whole “surviving dangerous potentially fatal surgery” thing too. Yea – that.

    I second the request for parallel treatments of an as yet undetermined topic. One of the best radio shows I ever heard compared multiple versions of the same tune – very interesting. With these two guys, how could you miss?

  8. It’s a privilege to read your thoughtful prose, Paul, it always leaves me smiling and grateful for every experience we have, no matter how we identify them!

    and I was 19 riding a Honda 650 and nowhere near NJ in ’68, just sayin’

  9. Paul, thank you for a well-written description of the Special Issuance minefield. Even though I never suffered a heart attack, I still wound up in the same mess. A routine stress test during a physical in 2000 sent me down the bypass route with the same recovery routine, but less cardiac rehab since my heart had no damage. Not flying at the time, I went back to work and put it behind me. Fast forward to 2010, when I decided to get back into flying and maybe buying a plane. I was definitely shocked when the AME scowled over his glasses and informed me that my 3rd class medical was denied. “But I never had a heart attack!” I protested. “Doesn’t matter.” Said the doc. “But, you can apply for a SI if you want.” After killing a few dozen trees for paper, and a nuclear stress test, (and several months of time) I was able to convince Oklahoma City that I was worthy of a second chance. Every other year I went into the AME’s office, loaded with reams of paper and test results, fingers crossed, hoping the FAA gods would not change their minds and ground me forever. So, when Basic Med finally got approved, I was one of the early adopters. Basic Med is arguably the best present Congress has ever bestowed on the aging pilot population. I still do annual physicals with my family doctor, including biennial stress tests with a cardiologist. So far, so good (fingers still crossed). But time is an unforgiving master, and some day I will have to trade my beloved Cardinal RG in for an LSA. Until then, savor the experience and keep flying! Thanks again.

  10. You should see what it’s like to endure the Special Issuance “process” from the get-go, Paul. It will be two years exactly on August 11, that I entered the Looking Glass in Oklahoma City. Just received my Student Pilot card a week ago. Might be a record, I don’t know. Total cost so far is about $2400 and that is all outside the airplane.
    Once this SI expires, I am off to Basic Med. Maybe I will complete my ASEL certificate in under four years. I’m sure some other roadblock will be thrown up by the FAA, last-minute style, as has been the norm for the last two years.
    Good and timely article, Paul.

  11. Where are the near-suicidal laments from the likely droves of permanently grounded elderly former pilots who arrogantly and greedily pursued a medical renewal knowing they had developed fitness shortcomings as seniors, failed it, then dropped years and a barrel of Benjamins pursuing the S.I., and failed THAT ?
    What IS the pass/fail ratio out of OKCity for the S.I. among mortal men without unlimited funds and a covey (or coven!) of experts?
    All instead of heeding the Dirty Harry admonition “a man’s got to know his limitations” and spending their twilight years exuberantly flying all day and landing at twilight in an economical two seater classic.