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Truth or Dare: Telling the FAA About Your Health

by Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

For pilots with health problems that aren't debilitating but possibly disqualifying, 'fessing up on the application for a third class medical certificate can be a busted-if-you-do, busted-if-you-don't proposition.

Too much information could mean denial of the application and bureaucratic warfare with the FAA. Too little or false information could park a pilot on the ground'permanently'and lead to fines and jail time if authorities detect a lie or deceit.

There are two schools of thought on this issue: 'If you wanna fly, you gotta lie' versus 'honesty is always the best policy.' A large gray area separates these two extremes, however.

A pilot might reason, for example, that the antidepressant he's taken for months hasn't caused any side effects and actually makes him more mentally fit to fly, a safer pilot. So why open a can of worms by telling the aviation medical examiner?

For airmen, this, like so many other aspects of aviation, is a judgment call'but one that also gets tangled up in personal ethics. Some pilots are terrified of the FAA's power to revoke their flying privileges and, accordingly, bend or ignore the rules. Others accept what the agency is trying to do'protect everyone's best interests'and play by its less-than-perfect rules.

For Uncle Sam, though, this is anything but a judgment call. The Federal Aviation Regulations and U.S. law require that FAA Form 8500-8, the application for a medical certificate, be filled out completely and truthfully'or else. An applicant who knowingly misrepresents the facts and gets caught can lose his or her pilot license forever and face a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to five years, or both.

Make no mistake: Form 8500-8 is a legal instrument, unlike many other documents. Your signature at the bottom authorizes the FAA to search the National Drivers Registry for violations involving alcohol or illegal drugs, for instance, so you may want to think twice about trying to conceal a drunk driving conviction.

There's also the possibility that the results of a blood or urine test will expose a condition you tried to hide.

'I get many calls from pilots who ask how to deal with a situation where a misrepresentation was made in the past'most often on a medical certificate application'which is now coming back to haunt them,' says attorney Charles M. Finkel.

According to Dr. Guillermo J. Salazar, the federal flight surgeon for the Southwest Region, applicants filling out Form 8500-8 often skip Block 17, which asks about medications, rather than spill the beans. But missing information will simply cause delays and more work; the medical examiner and/or the FAA's Aeromedical Certification Division in Oklahoma City, Okla., won't process an incomplete form.

Federal Air Surgeon Jon Jordan is very aware of the FAA fear factor among pilots who worry about the potential consequences of filling out the form truthfully. '[T]here is probably some justification for that,' he acknowledged in a 1998 interview, noting that the FAA is 'extremely conservative' when it comes to medical matters. But Jordan also said: 'Folks need not be overly concerned about losing their medical certificate, as we end up disqualifying very few when you look at the total number of applicants.'

Indeed, in 2000 the Aeromedical Certification Division granted twice as many 'special issuance' certificates to pilots who had a significant medical condition, like coronary heart disease, a valve implant, a pacemaker, or alcoholism, as it did 10 years earlier.

Moreover, there are strategies that will improve your chances of gaining medical certification legally and more quickly even if health is an issue. Experts offer these tips:

  • Don't undergo a physical exam if you suspect you might be disqualified. It's better to try to resolve a condition first than to risk having your application rejected or delayed for months by the FAA.
  • Contact an aviation medical examiner (AME) early if you have doubts or questions.
  • If you decide to undergo a physical despite questionable health, first gather all medical documents, such as a letter from your family doctor stating that a condition has been treated and resolved, and present them to the AME. That may boost your chances of passing the exam or minimizing delays on the FAA's end.
  • Get thorough guidance on how to proceed. Pilot organizations offer free advice to members, commercial outfits offer advice and assistance for a fee and printed resources are available. One is Health for Pilots: A Complete Guide to FAA Medical Certification and Self-Care (Sagebrush Press, October 2002), by Dr. Paul M. Gahlinger.

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.