Monday, June 16, 2008

3rd Class Medical

I belong to the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). They are a really cool group that looks out for the interests of GA (General Aviation) pilots and small aircraft owners. What most people don't realize is that GA is like the ecosystem in the Amazon Jungle. You may not be directly affected by the massive destruction of the rain forests at the moment, but you will once it's too late. The same goes for GA. Most of the technologies that help large commercial aircraft go bigger/better/faster get their start on small GA or military aircraft. Granted military aircraft aren't GA aircraft, but considering military applications are "bleeding edge" feeder technologies, GA aircraft are usually the first ones in the civilian world to make use of those technologies as they mature. Simply put, you do not "bet the farm" on a technology that has only been proven in the military world. The military and civilian worlds are completely different. GA bridges that gap since small aircraft cost a fraction of what a large transport jet costs to design. GA allows for more "technology maturing" design cycles. A large commercial aircraft company like Boeing measures its design cycles in decades. A bad design decision on a large transport jet can cause heartache and ruin for many decades to come. A bad design decision on a GA aircraft design is more like a 5-10 year setback, depending on the fallout.

While I'm on the GA bandwagon, another value most people don't realize is that airlines depend on GA to fill the need for good pilots. The military does an excellent job training pilots, but they can't possibly fill the entire need. Many airline pilots worked their way up the hard way, grinding it out one hour at a time. They scraped their pennies together to buy flight time and eventually get their CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) certificate. At that point they can build time and get paid for it. They're barely able to make ends meet, but usually don't mind because they're pursuing something they love.

All things considered, the margins are very thin in GA. No one gets into GA because it makes a lot of economic sense. They do it because they truly love flying, or perhaps they see it as a step towards a career. It's sometimes very easy for those in power to lose sight of the fact that GA represents a critical ecosystem that feeds this country's economic engine. The AOPA exists to make sure those in power understand those complex issues and don't make stupid decisions that affect everyone from the retired "mom" who has always wanted to fulfill her dream of flying, to the technology pipeline that drives much of the innovation in the multi billion dollar air transport industry.

But enough about that... Each week the AOPA sends out their ePILOT newsletter. Since I'm in training to be a CFI, I was interested to read this in the recent newsletter:

==> QUIZ ME! <==
Here's a question asked by an AOPA member who contacted our aviation services staff through the AOPA Pilot Information Center. Test your knowledge.

Question: Does a flight instructor need to hold a second-class medical certificate when providing flight instruction?

Answer: A flight instructor does not need a second-class medical to provide dual instruction. If the CFI must act as pilot in command (PIC) for the flight, he or she is required to hold a valid third class medical certificate. While a commercial pilot certificate or airline transport pilot certificate is required to become a CFI, the FAA has determined that when providing instruction, a flight instructor is simply receiving compensation for his or her instruction and, therefore, exercising the privileges of a private pilot certificate. If the CFI is not required to act as PIC and is not performing the duties of a required crewmember (i.e., safety pilot), he or she does not need a valid medical certificate. Additionally, a medical certificate is not required when performing the duties of a flight instructor with a glider rating or sport pilot rating. This information is discussed in FAR 61.23(3)(iv)

What does all of that mean? GA pilots have to have a medical certificate clearing your way to fly. Even if you have a pilots license, you can't fly if you aren't approved by a FAA designated doctor. The higher up you get, the more stringent the medical certificates. Airline transport pilots have what is called a first class medical. This has to be renewed every 6 months. From there, it goes down to a second or a third class medical certificate. Third class medical certificates are all that are required for private pilots, and those are good for three years, unless you are over 40, then you have to get it renewed every 2 years. I've personally always gotten a first class medical and as far as I can tell, the exam for all three medicals is the same until you turn 35. It's basically just a standard physical with a vision and hearing exam thrown in. When you turn 35, the first class medical requires an EKG.

If you are exercising the privileges of a commercial pilots license, which means you can be compensated for flying, you need a second class medical. What makes the quoted passage so interesting is that even though you need a commercial certificate to be compensated for flying, being paid to instruct others to fly only requires a third class medical. Wonder why that is...

I suspect that it probably has something to do with the fact that you aren't alone in the plane and more likely than not, your student can land the plane safely if you keel over and die of a heart attack. I also think it has a lot to do with not grounding a lot of good CFIs. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to be a flight instructor and they don't exactly grow on trees.