FlySportUSA: How to Become a Sport Pilot

Medical Requirements for Sport Pilots

 

Smiliing doctor in lab coat giving a thumbs-up sign

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the FAA doesn't have any medical requirements for sport pilots. This isn't quite true.

First of all, the most important rule is one that's not found in any legislation or regulation, and that's the rule of common sense. If you have some medical condition that would make it unsafe for you to fly an aircraft, then don't fly an aircraft. Also, don't put off seeing a doctor because you're afraid that the doctor may uncover some medical condition that would affect your ability to fly. That's just dumb. Your health comes first. Flying when you're not fit to do so not endangers your life and many others. So use some common sense.

Legally speaking, FAR 61.53 forbids a sport pilot from exercising his or her privileges "while that person knows or has reason to know of any medical condition that would make the person unable to operate the aircraft in a safe manner." In other words, just like any other pilot, a sport pilot must self-ground during periods of known medical incapacitation. Again, your health and safety come first; so if you think you're sick, then see a doctor.

Where the Sport Pilot Rule differs is in two regards:

 

1. The "Driver's License Medical"

Sport pilots (other than pilots who fly only gliders or free balloons, for which no medical certificate is required in any case) may satisfy the medical requirement in either of two ways:

  1. They must hold a currently valid Airman Medical Certificate issued by an Aviation Medical Examiner, or
  2. They must hold a currently valid U.S. driver's license.

A pilot who uses a driver's license to meet the medical requirement must comply with any restrictions on his or her driver's license, such as a requirement that he or she wear corrective lenses.

 

Unacceptable Driver's Licenses

The FAA requires that any and all restrictions placed on a person's driver's license also apply to that person's use of the license to exercise Sport Pilot privileges. Because of this rule, certain kinds of driver's licenses are unsuitable to satisfy Sport Pilot medical requirements. For example:

In general, any restrictions on a person's driver's licenses also apply when the holder is using the license to satisfy Sport Pilot medical requirements. However, there are a few oddball restrictions that don't carry over to flying.

For example, a restriction limiting the driver to vehicles with automatic transmissions wouldn't apply because aircraft don't have transmissions; and a restriction from driving at night would be irrelevant because Sport Pilots aren't allowed to fly at night, anyway. Another example would be restrictions in some states that limit the number of unrelated passengers youthful drivers are allowed to carry. Because Sport Pilots are only allowed to carry one passenger, anyway, such a restriction would be irrelevant (unless, of course, the restriction prevented the driver from carrying any passengers at all).

 

Exceptions to the Driver's License Medical

There are some people who are not allowed to use a driver's license to satisfy the medical requirement.

Specifically, individuals who previously held an Airman Medical Certificate or an Authorization for Special Issuance that has been denied, suspended, withdrawn, or revoked; or whose most recent application for an Airman Medical Certificate did not result in their being found qualified for at least a third-class Airman Medical Certificate, cannot use a driver's license to exercise Sport Pilot privileges.

However, pilots who previously held medical certificates that merely expired are allowed to use their driver's licenses to meet the medical requirements for Sport Pilot privileges, subject to the self-certification requirements that apply to all pilots, and consulting with their personal physicians regarding any known medical conditions as discussed farther down the page.

 

Special Issuance Medical Certificates

Pilots who once held medical certificates which were denied, suspended, withdrawn, or revoked should apply for an Authorization for Special Issuance in accordance with FAR 67.401. A Special Issuance is an Airman Medical Certificate issued to someone who ordinarily would not qualify for one, but who has demonstrated "to the satisfaction of the Federal Air Surgeon that the duties authorized by the class of medical certificate applied for can be performed without endangering public safety during the period in which the Authorization would be in force."

The process of obtaining a Special Issuance medical certificate is long, complex, and often expensive. It's essential that the AME you choose to help you obtain a Special Issuance have the knowledge, experience, and willingness to guide you through the process -- the most important part of which is to be as certain as possible that you're going to pass before the paperwork goes in to the FAA. This means making sure that your medical condition is sufficiently under control, but it also means proving to the FAA's satisfaction that this is the case.

In addition, if you are currently a Sport Pilot using your driver's license as a medical, and you apply for a Special Issuance medical certificate and are denied, you will no longer be able to use your driver's license as a medical. So if you're a Sport Pilot considering applying for an SI so you can advance to a higher level of pilot certificate, it's extremely important that you have all your ducks in a row before you apply. If your application for a Special Issuance is denied, you will lose even the flying privileges that you already have.

Dr. Bruce B. Chien is an accomplished pilot and flight instructor, a physician, and a Senior Aviation Medical Examiner who is widely considered to be the nation's foremost expert in "difficult-case" aviation medical certification. If you're considering applying for a Special Issuance medical, you really owe it to yourself to visit Dr. Chien's site before you fill out a single form.

 

2. Flying with Chronic Medical Conditions

Sport Pilot medical requirements do allow for the possibility of exercising Sport Pilot privileges even when a pilot may have chronic medical conditions that would disqualify him or her from other kinds of flying. The FAA advises such individuals to discuss their conditions with their personal physicians to determine whether they can safely exercise Sport Pilot privileges.

As a bit of background, individuals who suffer from certain medical conditions must go through a lengthy (and usually expensive) process to obtain a "Special Issuance" medical certificate from the FAA if they wish to obtain an Airman Medical Certificate. Most of these requests eventually are granted, but the process can be long and quite expensive, and often must be repeated in whole or in part every time the medical is renewed.

Under the Sport Pilot rule, people with chronic medical conditions that would normally disqualify them from obtaining an Airman Medical Certificate may be able to exercise Sport Pilot privileges, provided that their conditions are under control and that they have discussed the matter with their personal physicians.

Although rather vague (and probably intentionally so), the FAA's position on this question seems to be that an individual who suffers from a chronic medical condition may exercise Sport Pilot privileges provided that all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The pilot is in "good health;"

  2. The pilot has discussed his or her health as it relates to flying with his or her personal physician;

  3. The pilot's personal physician has not informed the pilot that he or she has a medical deficiency that would interfere with the safe performance of sport piloting duties (or alternatively, that any such condition is sufficiently controlled so as not to interfere with the safe performance of sport piloting duties);

  4. The pilot is adhering to any and all medical treatment prescribed by his or her doctor; and,

  5. The pilot is able to conscientiously self-certify in accordance with FAR 61.53.

What does "good health" mean? Again, the FAA's stated position doesn't precisely define that. But a common-sense look at the Federal Air Surgeon's opinion and the text of FAR 61.53 suggest that "good health," for the purpose of exercising Sport Pilot privileges, consists of the absence of any current "medical condition that would make the person unable to operate the aircraft in a safe manner."

 

DOT / CDL Medical Certificates do NOT Satisfy the SP Medical Requirement

Quite a few correspondents have emailed me asking if possessing a DOT medical certificate (a requirement for commercial drivers) satisfies the Sport Pilot medical requirement. It doesn't. A DOT medical certificate is completely irrelevant to exercising Sport Pilot privileges. It neither satisfies the medical requirement nor bestows any additional privileges. Neither does possessing a CDL rather than a "regular" driver's license make any difference at all as far as exercising SP privileges is concerned.

The reason this question comes up is because some people who live in big cities with extensive public transportation systems simply never get around to getting a driver's license. They don't need one where they live because they can get anywhere they need to go by bus or subway. Because it's a lot easier and less expensive to get a DOT medical card (any licensed physician, PA, or Nurse Practitioner can issue one) than it is to learn how to drive, a lot of folks wonder if they can just get the DOT medical card instead.

The answer as of this writing is, no, they can't substitute a DOT medical card for a driver's license. The law doesn't allow for that.

If you don't have a driver's license and want to become a Sport Pilot, you can either obtain a driver's license, or you can schedule an examination by an Aviation Medical Examiner and obtain a third-class or higher Aviation Medical Certificate. Just remember that if you fail the physical for the Airman Medical Certificate, you will not be allowed to use a driver's license as a medical thereafter.

 

Summary

The Sport Pilot Rule allows individual airmen to exercise considerable discretion, after consultation with their physicians, in determining their fitness to fly. But this investment of trust is not a license to be reckless. Self-certification is a responsibility that must be taken seriously and exercised conscientiously.