FAA Publishes 3rd Class Medical Reform

The FAA finally announced their new BasicMed rule last week. (This is the rule that let's pilots fly a lot of aircraft without the need to hold a 3rd class medical.) It's a really big deal in a lot of ways. It will help further the cause of aviation in the United States. Of course, it also has some caveats that make it far less of a good deal than I'd hoped.

(You can read the FAA's final rule here, or you can catch it in the new 14 CFR Part 68 when it's published.)

The most important principle in this new rule is that you no longer need an FAA medical certificate to do non-commercial flying in aircraft that:

  1. [are] authorized under Federal law to carry not more than 6 occupants
  2. [have] a maximum certificated takeoff weight of not more than 6,000 pounds

Until now, the only way to fly without holding a medical was to fly a glider or a Light Sport Aircraft. Those are both great parts of aviation. They offer fun, challenge, and utility. This segment of aviation includes dozens of types of aircraft that fit a variety of missions. However, they're generally limited to day, VMC flying. LSAs are further limited to 10,000 feet, a maximum speed in level flight of 120 kts, and a max gross weight of 1320 pounds (with some exceptions.)

The Sport Pilot rule has allowed many older pilots or people with minor medical conditions continue flying, even after they might not have been able to obtain a 3rd class medical. It also reduced the barrier to entry for many young pilots. Have a driver's license? You're qualified to fly. Unfortunately, the limitations placed on those aircraft and the operations that Sport Pilots can do tend to limit a lot of people.

The BasicMed rule fixes a lot of that. The limits of 6,000 pounds and up to 6 seats cover most of the GA fleet. These limits allow for flying fast, capable aircraft. They include many light twins. On the training side, this will mean a new life for many aircraft, like the C-150, that are too heavy to qualify as LSAs even though they're absolutely iconic training aircraft. AOPA has been working on a project to refurbish and resell C-150/152s as "Reimagined" aircraft. They're making these aircraft like-new at prices significantly lower than anything new on the market today.

The BasicMed rule also removes most of the Sport Pilot rule's restrictions and makes using these aircraft practical. The final rule now only prohibits BasicMed pilots from operations:

  • for compensation or hire, including that no passenger or property on the flight is being carried for compensation or hire;
  • at an altitude that is more than 18,000 feet above mean sea level;
  • outside the United States, unless authorized by the country in which the flight is conducted; or
  • at an indicated airspeed exceeding 250 knots.

Not only does this create a new market for refurbished trainers, it also creates a market for refurbishing other great aircraft. It will give pilots access to nice aircraft for less, it will add jobs for mechanics who do the refurbishing work, it will give engine and avionics suppliers a boost, and it will spread the benefits of having more aircraft in our skies to all the other service providers throughout our country. Win-win all the way around!

Unfortunately, it's not all fun and games. The rule gets very specific on what pilots have to do in lieu of maintaining a 3rd class medical. It's not as easy as just holding a driver's license. It requires that a pilot:

  1. Possess a valid driver’s license
  2. Have held a medical certificate at any time after July 15, 2006
  3. Have not had the most recently held medical certificate revoked, suspended, or withdrawn
  4. Have not had the most recent application for airman medical certification completed and denied
  5. Have taken a medical education course within the past 24 calendar months
  6. Have completed a comprehensive medical examination within the past 48 months
  7. Be under the care of a physician for certain medical conditions
  8. Have been found eligible for special issuance of a medical certificate for certain specified mental health, neurological, or cardiovascular conditions
  9. Consent to a National Driver Register check
  10. Fly only certain small aircraft, at a limited altitude and speed, and only within the United States
  11. Not fly for compensation or hire

The medical education course will be easy. The rule requires it to be available online for free. I suspect that AOPA already has a conforming course ready to go.

I was pretty puzzled by provision #2 though. This rule allows pilots to continue flying if they can't hold a medical certificate anymore, but the pilot must have been able to get at least a 3rd class medical at some point in the last 10 years. That's a sharp contrast to sport pilot or glider flying which allow a pilot to fly without ever having held a medical certificate. This provision will still keep some people out of aviation. It also maintains a huge barrier to entry into aviation. Pilots with many medical conditions that wouldn't otherwise prevent them from using this rule will be required to wade through months of FAA red tape to get a medical certificate at least once. This is an unfortunate provision and I hope it goes away eventually.

Provision #6 was also interesting to me. It requires pilots to have a "comprehensive medical examination" every 48 months. (Part 68 will list what that needs to entail for your physician.) While it's good that this exam won't be the kind of looming, recurrent threat that we all face every 1, 2 or 5 years when we go for our FAA medicals, it does present some other problems. Specifically: it costs more. The FAA's final rule even admits that they expect this exam to cost an average of $225, compared to the $117 they expect for an FAA medical exam. One of the big complaints about the 3rd class medical has been the cost. I've been unconvinced by that argument...it's less than the cost of renting most aircraft for an hour. However, some people will feel pushed out of aviation by this increased burden.

The rule also puts more responsibility on pilot, like paying even closer attention to medications that you shouldn't be taking when you fly. (If you're wondering, the Do Not Issue/Do Not Fly list is here.) Anyone using this rule will now be required to keep a personal medical checklist in his or her logbook. (Electronic record is fine.) I don't see those points as burdens so much as requirements to be intelligent, self-interested pilots though.

All in all, this new rule is a win. It allows access to better, more capable aircraft and more useful/exciting flying for a lot of people. It will create jobs, business opportunities, and get some beat-up old airplanes a new lease on life. It isn't perfect and I hope the FAA will refine some of these requirements as time goes on.

Thanks to the members of Congress who helped push through legislation requiring this change, thanks to the aviation interest groups who lobbied for that legislation, and thanks to the FAA for doing something to support GA in America.