Fit to Fly?


January 2017

“I’m in good enough shape to fly today, right?”

That simple question can be a tricky one to answer. Pilots of gliders, balloons, and Light Sport aircraft have to make almost all of their medical decisions on their own. When the FAA adopts revised rules for medical qualification of pilots flying certain types of airplanes and operations privately and not for hire (Third Class Medical Reform, which was mandated by law July 15, 2016, but as of this writing has not yet gone into effect), the same answers will likely apply to them as well.

Sport Pilots are allowed to use their state driver’s license to establish medical fitness. That’s part of the appeal of flying a light-sport aircraft (LSA). They only need to comply with restrictions or limitations that apply when they’re driving a car. This usually has something to do with vision correction, but also means that if their driver’s license is suspended or revoked for any reason, it may not be used as the basis of medical certification for flying an LSA.

Yet that’s not the whole story. FAR 61.53 provides a restriction that applies to Sport Pilots:

  • “A person shall not act as pilot in command, or in any other capacity as a required pilot flight crewmember, while that person knows or has reason to know of any medical condition that would make the person unable to operate the aircraft in a safe manner.”

It’s probable this language will apply to pilots flying under Third Class medical reform when it is adopted as well. Having a valid driver’s license is the minimum requirement. A pilot is also responsible for ensuring that their current medical health doesn’t jeopardize the safety of a flight.

FAR 61.23 also tells us that Sport Pilots must:

  • “Have been found eligible for the issuance of at least a third-class airman medical certificate at the time of his or her most recent application (if the person has applied for a medical certificate)”
  • “Not have had his or her most recently issued medical certificate (if the person has held a medical certificate) suspended or revoked or most recent Authorization for a Special Issuance of a Medical Certificate withdrawn; and”
  • “Not know or have reason to know of any medical condition that would make that person unable to operate a light-sport aircraft in a safe manner.”

Not only does having failed a medical certificate make you unfit to fly an LSA and under Third Class medical reform (assuming it is adopted as written in the law), so does having a condition that you know would cause you to fail if you tried to pass a medical…because of 61.23.

Pilots who think they’ll transition to LSA or fly under Third Class medical reform because of medications, diabetes, a heart condition, high blood pressure, or any number of other disqualifying conditions need to understand that they could be violating regulations in doing so. In other words, any medical condition that is currently disqualifying before the reform was passed is just that – still disqualified under the Third Class medical reform.

Of course we won’t know for certain until the actual regulatory language is published.

The big winners under Third Class medical reform are pilots flying under a Special Issuance certificate. If such a pilot has no change in his/her condition there would be no need to go through the often lengthy and expensive process of renewing that Special Issuance medical every two years.

What if you’re a pilot who has passed a required medical exam? Then how do you determine if you’re fit to fly that day? FAR 61.53 provides some clarity for this quandary, too:

  • If you know you have a medical deficiency that would cause you to fail an FAA medical examination if you tried to take it that day, you’re not medically eligible to fly.
  • If you’re taking a medication, prescribed or not, or taking treatment for any medical condition that would prevent you from passing an FAA medical exam, you’re not medically eligible to fly.

Recall the Federal Air Regulations aren’t just meant to protect pilots, they’re designed to protect people in our passenger seats and the people below us on the ground. From an FAA standpoint, medical requirements are not about pilot freedoms, they are about pilot responsibilities.

So let’s go back to our original question: “I’m in good enough shape to fly today, right?” No matter what you fly, the answer is the same: “I’m fit to fly if I could pass an FAA medical exam today.”

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Holder of an ATP certificate with instructor, CFII and MEI ratings and a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety, 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year, 2015 Inductee into the NAFI Hall of Fame and 2008 FAA Central Region CFI of the Year, three-time Master CFI Thomas P. Turner has been Lead Instructor for Bonanza pilot training program at the Beechcraft factory; production test pilot for engine modifications; aviation insurance underwriter; corporate pilot and safety expert; Captain in the United States Air Force; and contract course developer for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He now directs the education and safety arm of a 9000-member pilots’ organization. With over 4300 hours logged, including more than 2600 as an instructor, Tom writes, lectures and instructs extensively from his home at THE AIR CAPITAL--Wichita, Kansas. Subscribe to Tom’s free FLYING LESSONS Weekly e-newsletter at

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