One day, I’m enjoying retirement, flying when and where I want, and life is good. The next day, my cardiologist calls. That routine stress echocardiogram two days ago showed “a problem” with a coronary artery.
Well, first of all, I’m grounded as pilot in command. Next, an angiogram, and depending on what the doctor sees, I could need anything from nothing to a coronary bypass.
For me, the outcome was okay. Two coronary arteries were almost blocked. The doctors placed two stents during the angiogram/angioplasty and fixed the blockages. So, in and out of the hospital the same day, take it easy for a few more days, then back to everyday life. Good to go… but medically grounded for any flying that required my third class medical certificate.
So it’s back to some new choices to consider:
- Quit flying.
- Fly under LSA rules, which don’t require a medical certificate.
- Apply for a one-time Special Issuance Third Class Medical with the FAA.
Since I’m 72 years old and have enjoyed 40 years of recreational flying, some part-time flight instructing, and trips around the American West, maybe it was time to just call it quits. After all, this was not my livelihood, just a challenging hobby. For three months after my stents were placed, quitting seemed like the best option. But, as we all know, not flying when you have the skills and ability to fly, is hard to do.
I could continue flying under LSA rules but the closest Light-Sport Aircraft available for rent was 100 miles away in Torrance, California. Buying a new or used LSA might work but renting airplanes has always been the most economical way for me to fly.
So in May 2018, five months after my stent placement, I decided to pursue the Special Issuance. By then, I knew it could take up to six months of waiting for the FAA to decide my fate. AOPA would prove to be a big help guiding me through the process.
The starting point was a Google search for “FAA Special Issuance,” then a review of AOPA’s medical website pages along with the FAA.gov website. AOPA’s website has plenty of useful information about what information the FAA requires for disqualifying medical conditions to be considered for a Special Issuance.
Next, a couple of conversations with AOPA medical experts in the Pilot Information Center. They confirmed that I would need a healthy dose of patience, many pages of medical records, and even a little luck along the way. In my case, the required records included a cardiologist’s current evaluation and prognosis, a current treadmill test, and required medications. All treadmill tracings were to be included.
Luckily, my healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente, makes requesting records a simple online procedure. Within two days Kaiser emailed everything. One hundred and eighteen pages later I had all the documents I needed.
Then, a visit to Office Depot to run off three copies of everything: one for the FAA, one for AOPA, one for my AME, and I would retain the originals.
Now I was ready to send all my records to AOPA’s Pilot Protection Service medical experts for review. AOPA said it would take about two weeks for them to review the package and let me know if all was okay, or if more information might be needed. This one key step is the best thing you can do to try to get ahead of the FAA approval process. The AOPA Pilot Protection service is worth every penny of its nominal cost.
AOPA’s medical specialist said the package looked good but the cardiologist’s summary needed more detail. With a revised summary, she said chances for FAA approval were excellent. Another advantage of Pilot Protection is you can always call and speak with an expert to answer questions or clarify any issues. Pilot Protection cannot return your records package.
Next, a visit to my AME for a third class medical exam. He’s done my exams for ten years and is familiar with my overall health. His office administrator is also an FAA wizard and quickly sent the completed package to FAA. Now, the four to six month wait began.
After two weeks, I called FAA’s medical standards and they confirmed my package had been received. You can call this number (405-954-4821) anytime for a status update, but it’s almost always a recording that says they’re overwhelmed and to call back later.
The FAA scans all document packages into their system so mine was in the queue. After scanning, a technician reviews the information and the package goes to the end of the line to await an FAA doctor’s review and decision.
After two months of waiting, I received an FAA letter. Could this be my approved Special Issuance?
Nope… it’s a “request for more information.” Ironically, they don’t want anything heart related, but they wanted a current vision field test. I have previously reported ocular hypertension for three previous medical exams, a condition my AME has approved within his FAA authority.
Now a quick scramble to my optometrist for the test, then mailing by priority mail to keep the process moving along. This glitch will move me back toward the end of the line. The FAA won’t hold your place in processing when they request additional information.
Since my package went to Oklahoma City in May, two months had passed and the waiting clock restarted. Now it was August and all I could do was call the FAA every two weeks to check on my processing status.
On October 10th another letter arrived. What now? Surprise… my application was approved and my new Special Issuance third class medical was included with the letter. The new medical would allow me to fly for seven months, until May, 2019. After that I could apply for a renewal third class medical certificate by submitting some updated, relatively simple, cardiac information to my AME.
BasicMed was another option if I did not have any new disqualifying health problems. So, that was my easiest way to keep flying as PIC. I used my regular AME for the health exam. After completing the rest of the BasicMed, process I am now good to go.
Was it all worth it? For me, the answer is yes. I had the time and resources to pursue the Special Issuance and that time would have gone by even if I chose to stop flying.
As the pilot population ages, more active pilots will encounter disqualifying health issues and a loss of their flying privileges. The route to Special Issuance is challenging but not impossible.
To have the skills to fly and not use them because of some health issues can be one of those choices you may look back on and regret. The door is open… why not follow the route and get back in the air?