The Road Back After Heart Problems
by Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer
and IFA Member
aviators with an ailing heart, a heart that simply ticks isn't good enough for
the FAA, even if you've undergone a medical procedure to correct a problem or
are in good physical health otherwise. To regain a third class medical
certificate, you'll have to meet sky-high standards.
The good news is that many pilots do return to the cockpit after
numerous heart-related issues. Each year, the FAA recertifies more than 3,000
private pilots who've had a heart attack, for example, and more than 2,300 whose
coronary arteries have been cleared by angioplasty.
But it takes intelligent planning, initiative, optimism and hard
work to regain the FAA's blessing.
There are two courses of action after a certification denial.
One is to apply for a special issuance certificate. This means undergoing
numerous medical tests to prove that, despite coronary ills, you wouldn't
endanger public safety while flying an aircraft. A special issuance typically is
valid for just six to 12 months and other flight restrictions may apply.
The second course is to disprove the diagnosis for which you
In either case, to re-apply for certification after a denial,
you must wait until six months after the cardiac event. This gives your heart
time to heal and reduces the likelihood of complications following treatment.
Private pilots are finding it easier now than ever to get or
maintain discretionary medical certification. New treatments and medical
advances enable aviators to perform well regardless of disease, according to
Stanley Mohler, MD, director of aerospace medicine at Wright State University
School of Medicine.
Moreover, aviation medical examiners have considerable leeway to
issue a medical certificate in cases of sub-par health as long as you provide
the appropriate documentation.
The road back to flying after cardiac problems can be long and
arduous, if only because the FAA wants to see detailed evidence of recovery. The
FAA's Aeromedical Certification Division requires:
A hospital admission summary (history and physical),
coronary catheterization and surgical reports, and a discharge summary about
your heart attack, angina, bypass operation or angioplasty.
A current cardiovascular evaluation covering everything from
medications, functional capacity and risk factors that can be modified (such
as poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking) to a blood lipid profile.
A treadmill stress test that demonstrates you've regained
100 percent of maximal predicted heart rate.
Cardiovascular rehabilitation is essential in many cases if you
hope to achieve the minimum functional capacity to fly again, according to
Jeffrey Dwyer of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Kaiser Permanente Medical
Kaiser's rehab program for pilots launches them on a safe and
effective exercise program, measures the outcome of that effort, documents
tolerance to heart medications acceptable to the FAA, and prepares them for a
passing score on the treadmill stress test.
Other commercial outfits, such as Virtual Flight Surgeons,
handle the red tape for you. They review and assemble medical records, offer
advice on reporting requirements, provide checklists and FAA forms, and
communicate with the FAA and advocate on your behalf.
This assumes that you have the will, desire, and determination,
and financial resources, to re-earn your flying privileges. But most pilots
would agree it's well worth the price.
When he isn’t flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif.
The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Paul Engstrom assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.