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Medical Certification: Where Do I Start?

By Frederick E. Tilton; M.D. Federal Air Surgeon

Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

Every potential aviator faces the same question: Where do I start? Many people think flying would be fun or perhaps they think they want to become a professional pilot, but are not sure what they need to do to make life in the clouds a reality. Regardless of the final flying objective, they all must begin somewhere.

Before worrying about obtaining a medical certificate, I suggest you find a flight instructor and take a few lessons to make sure flying is really for you. Then, if you are certain you want to pursue aviation further, you will want to determine the type of flying you think you want to do. If your initial goal is simply to learn how to fly for recreation, you may not need a medical certificate. A few years ago, the FAA launched a Sport Pilot program that allows individuals to fly light aircraft with only a valid driver’s license as long as he or she has never applied for an FAA medical, or their most recent medical application has not been denied, suspended, unissued, or revoked.

If you wish to fly larger or more complex airplanes, or you intend to become a professional pilot, you will need to obtain a medical certificate. There are three types of FAA medical certificates. A first class medical is required to exercise the privileges of an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP); a second-class medical is required to fly as a commercial pilot (this certificate allows a person to receive compensation to fly); and a third-class medical is required to fly as a private pilot.

When you are just beginning, there is no reason to apply for anything other than a third-class medical unless you are enrolling in a program that requires a higher class of medical certificate. The only differences between the three exams are: the eye standards (they are more rigorous for first- and second-class medicals); an electrocardiogram for any initial first-class medical exam over age 35, and then annually over age 40; and the frequency requirements for the three examinations. Please note that some professional programs or colleges require a higher class of certificate to enter their program. So, unless you are enrolling in a program that requires a higher class of exam, apply for a third-class medical and ask your aviation medical examiner (AME) if you would meet the more rigorous standards for the other examinations. If you want to, you can look up the medical standards in 14 CFR parts 67 or ask your AME for help.

Finding a Good Partner

An important step in getting your first medical is to find a good AME who should be your partner in the medical certification process. He or she should be able to answer any questions you have as well as be prepared to act as your advocate in the process, while still ensuring you meet the requirements to fly safely. You can start your search by going to www.faa.gov/pilots/amelocator/ where you will find a list of AMEs in your area.

You may also want to seek recommendations from local pilots or pilot advocacy organizations before you make a selection. If, for example, you have a medical condition that would require a special issuance (waiver), look for an AME who has experience working with pilots on special issuance. An AME who is familiar with your particular condition is even better.

All of us in the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine are committed to getting as many pilots as we can safely into the air. We stay abreast of medical advances and research findings so we are able to certify pilots with conditions that were disqualifying in the past.

I wish you all a safe flying future.

Frederick E. Tilton, M.D., M.P.H., received both an M.S. and an M.D. degree from the University of New Mexico and an M.P.H. from the University of Texas. During a 26-year career with the U.S. Air Force, Dr. Tilton logged more than 4,000 hours as a command pilot and senior flight surgeon flying a variety of aircraft. He currently flies the Cessna Citation 560 XL