AOPA is actively pursuing the relaxation of third class medical requirements for pilots flying recreationally. At EAA AirVenture a few weeks ago, the FAA administrator announced that we can expect to see a formal notice of proposed rulemaking sometime this fall. Despite this announcement, AOPA continues to build support in both the House and the Senate to address needed reforms.
For now, though, we still have to undergo medical examinations, and choosing an aviation medical examiner can be an important part of your FAA medical certification renewal experience. For about 95 percent of the pilots who apply for a medical each year, the encounter is fairly uneventful and the medical certificate is issued at the time of the exam. For the 5 percent of pilots who present some type of medical condition that requires FAA review, how you interact with the AME, and the AME’s level of engagement with you and the FAA, can determine the tone of your next response to an FAA customer satisfaction survey.
The FAA has a system in place for designating and monitoring AME performance. Newly designated physicians attend a five-day orientation seminar to bring them up to speed on regulations and certification practices and policies. Recertification is done in person or online every three years. As with flying and just about everything else in life, proficiency is an important element. AMEs are required to perform a minimum of 10 FAA physical examinations annually. The more active physicians are doing more than 300 a year, and a small handful whose practices are exclusively doing FAA physical exams are seeing more than 1,000 pilots in a year.
About 3,500 examiners around the country and internationally are authorized to do FAA flight physicals. Most of the AMEs, about 70 percent, are in family practice or internal medicine, while only about 10 percent specialize in aerospace medicine.
Members often ask if we can “recommend a good AME” in their area. We can’t really make recommendations, because we all have a different perception of a “good” AME. That said, though, we do know a number of doctors around the country through our mutual membership in different aviation medical organizations. Because we know those physicians personally, we are a little more comfortable in suggesting that members might want to contact a particular examiner.
The FAA maintains an up-to-date geographical listing of AMEs around the country. That list includes some demographic information, including the AME’s airman certificates, if any, designated by a “P” next to their name. An asterisk in the field indicates the doctor is a senior AME, meaning he or she is authorized to perform first class FAA physical exams. The year of their designation and their medical specialty are also included in the listings.
If you have a medical situation that might require a special issuance, you should definitely talk with the medical certification specialists in AOPA's Pilot Information Center first. And if you will be seeing an AME for the first time, and your medical application includes some first-time history that could present a challenge, you might consider a short phone conversation with the AME before you schedule the flight physical just to see how the AME intends to handle your case. The AME has a dual role of making certain the applicant is safe to fly, but is also expected to be the pilot’s advocate in helping wade through the bureaucracy that is FAA medical certification. Not all examiners necessarily get the advocacy part, and may punt your application to the FAA, even if, with just a little more effort, they could get the FAA to OK the issuance of your certificate at the time of the exam.
Doing that little extra homework on the front end your exam can often save you months of frustration in dealing with the FAA on the back end if your application is deferred for review.