How the FAA Shoots Itself in the Foot

Most pilots by now know of the new Sport Pilot/Light Sport Aircraft regulations put into effect by the Federal Aviation Administration. After years of dithering, politicking, and administrative inertia, the FAA/DOT accepted a new category of aircraft and airman certification in a long-delayed response to the problems of ever greater aviation system complexity and the continuing steep decline in the certificated pilot population in the US. In sum, a Sport Pilot may fly as pilot in command of a certificated aircraft that weighs no more than 1,320 pounds fully loaded and may carry no more than one passenger in daytime, visual flight rules flying. Exactly what most recreational pilots want to do.

The stated intent of the new Sport Pilot/LSA event was to help reverse the decline in the pilot population while creating a market for new small aircraft. The average age of the general aviation fleet in the US is about 30 years. There continues debate on the safety of using aging aircraft. The ceiling for LSA is 1,320 pounds max allowable gross weight, meaning that very few existing small aircraft can be flown under LSA rules. This has been met with great disappointment by the pilot population, since such widely-available 2-seat aircraft as the $20,000 - $30,000 used Cessna 150/152 now are classified as “too big” to fall under LSA. The LSA idea was to have created a market for new light aircraft that would sell for about $30,000. This idea was, of course, really poorly researched, since the price of new LSA is, in fact, $90,000 to $150,000, some even available with full IFR-capable glass cockpit displays that cannot be used for IFR under the LSA rules (more on this later).

One key feature of SP/LSA is the FAA’s agreement to allow the pilot to use his/her driver’s license as a “self-certification” of health as safe to fly as pilot in command. This took years to get through the FAA, since the FAA apparently believes that the best way to make flying safer is to ground as many pilots and airplanes as possible (it needs be noted that the FAA/DOT operates under near impossible conditions because Congress holds it to a zero accident safety standard that is, of course, impossible and moronic). But the FAA apparently couldn’t bring itself to do something like self-certification without sabotaging itself. Thus, if you want to fly as a Sport Pilot in an LSA, you can do so on the basis of your driver’s license, UNLESS you have failed your last FAA medical exam for a Third Class Medical Certificate. A 3rd class medical basically mirrors your regular annual physical exam, except that the FAA adds a vision limit of being correctable to at least 20/40 and not having a blood pressure reading greater than 155/95 on the day of your physical (allowing the pilot to get so worried about it that it her BP is way up when the doctor measures it).

While the overall requirements of the 3rd class medical are pretty lenient, as the pilot population ages, transient higher blood pressure and declining vision become more likely. And here is where the FAA drops the ball. Because flying as a Sport Pilot is prohibited for anyone who has failed an FAA medical. People in general, and pilots in particular, are understandably reluctant to put themselves in a position in which failure is likely. Thus, someone wishing to fly as a Sport Pilot will simply let their medical certificates lapse rather than risk not being able to fly under the new regulations. One sees more and more of this as an ever greater number of pilots quietly sell their Cessna 172s and Piper Archers to replace them with a J-3 Cub, Aeronca Champ, or Luscombe (all now back in production because they meet the 1,320 pound maximum gate). Their deciding to not again take an FAA medical exam therefore creates an ever greater pool of pilots who may be flying with a serious medical condition such as untreated hypertension, glaucoma, kidney disease, etc. Rather than the FAA allowing such people to take their 3rd class medical exam, find a problem, and fix it, the FAA is creating an older pilot community flying with diagnosed or unknown medical conditions that are ever more likely to lead to sudden in-flight incapacitation of the pilot in command – what is least desirable. This stubborness is related to the FAA’s refusal to let Recreational Pilots fly such “big iron” as the 1,450- pound Cessna 140 or 1,500-pound Taylorcraft without having at least a 3rd class medical. Indeed, the ultralight aircraft (Part 103) population, not needing any medical certification, has essentially the same rate of in-flight medical incapacitation (basically, none) as do the medically-certified pilot population. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t*.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) is one of the flying organizations trying to change the rules so as to allow a pilot to fail a 3rd class medical exam, get the treatment they need, and then fly either with or without a medical certificate. So far, the FAA has been unwilling to entertain either this motion or that of allowing Recreational Pilots to also self-certify. The FAA/NTSB has found that the incidence of sudden in-flight medical incapacitation of an aircrewman is so small as to be statistically insignificant, and when occurring, almost never the result of any known pre-existing condition. The simple fact is that the distinction between a Sport Pilot flying a 1,320-pound Aeronca 7BCM and a Recreational Pilot flying a “big” 1,600-pound Cessna 150 is meaningless and the government just looks moronic in trying to make this distinction. The continuing damage done to aviation by such onerous, valueless, stubbornly bad rule making for private small aircraft operations makes victims not only of the pilot population but of all Americans.


* In a similar vein, the FAA prohibits any aircrew to take any anti-depression medicines. So, you can have a suicidally-depressed pilot flying your Boeing 777 rather than a mellowed-out one on Prozac or similar medication.

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