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Certifying the Physically Challenged

By Charles Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA member

Even though a person might have lost the action in an arm or limb, or perhaps lost the extremity entirely, it doesn’t mean passing a medical examination and obtaining a pilot’s license must also be lost. The Federal Aviation Administration has set up procedures whereby special flight tests and medical examinations can make it possible to join the millions of people who over the years now know the satisfaction of handling the controls and climbing into the sky.

Wiley Post set many flight records and was blind in one eye. A race car driver, who is a pilot, lost both hands in a racing accident but with prostheses was able to resume his piloting. A girl born without arms drives a car and earned a pilot’s license operating the controls with her feet. The ability to fly an airplane if the individual has certain physical challenges is so common that it has attracted establishment of several organizations. The Wheelchair Pilots Association has members who climb from their chairs into the cockpit and takeoff. Able Flight helps individuals with disabilities to get flight training and begin their flying activities in light sport aircraft. The group has flight scholarships to aid some in their quest to get into the air. Another is Freedom Wings International, run by and for people with physical disabilities to fly in specially adapted sailplanes.

Just as an individual with physical challenges finds certain activities in life must be done differently from other people, so too, it might be different in flying and obtaining the proper certificates. Aircraft may need special equipment for manipulating the controls. In some cases a safety pilot might be required to be along on the flight. This is not as difficult as it might sound because at almost every airport there are certificated pilots who enjoy going along on other flights.

The FAA considers amputations in the medical category of musculoskeletal conditions. A medical examiner looks for such things as range of motion, pain, strength, any medications, and of course, dexterity in use of the prosthetic devices. The FAA will want current and functional status reports and detailed information of the examining doctor’s testing and examinations. The examining doctor submits documentation to the FAA for decision. Several weeks will be required for the paper work to wind its way through the FAA.

If an applicant seeking a student pilot medical certificate is found qualified in all other aspects, the FAA may issue a limited certificate. The certificate will include the limitation that it is valid for student pilot purposes only. This permits the student applicant to continue flight training until ready for a Medical Flight Test. This MFT can be taken in conjunction with a regular flight test. These are conducted by FAA inspectors. If the flight test and the MFT are passed, the individual may be issued a Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA), which removes the limitation. Once a pilot has a SODA, regular medical examinations are conducted as for any other pilot and if conditions do not change, the medical examiner may issue a certificate without further referral to the FAA.

When prostheses are used or additional control devices are installed in an aircraft to assist the amputee, those persons found qualified by special certificate procedures will have their certificates limited to require that the devices—or possibly the specific aircraft in which special devices are installed—must always be used when exercising privileges of the certificate.

There is a bit more paper work, medical and flight examinations, and sometimes additional instruction needed to obtain a license. But individuals who are physically challenged are accustomed to demonstrating their abilities. Medical examiners and the FAA want to issue certificates to individuals so long as exercising the privileges do not endanger the individual or the general public.

Getting your pilot and medical certificates might not be as challenging as many at first might think.

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Charles Spence 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.

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