AOPA’s Medical Certification staff interacts on a regular basis with the FAA medical group and we know quite a bit about how their bureaucracy operates. We know the medical certification review process is “slow”, and there are abundant reasons for that, but suffice it to say that it is part of the federal “bureaucracy” with all the inherent constraints that diminish efficiency.
One of the truisms from my days in the operating room that is still true today is “all bleeding eventually stops.” To paraphrase that, when you send something to the FAA for review, you will “eventually” hear from them, but it will take a while—on average about 60-90 days. There are some tips, though, that can help the FAA’s medical certification staff get to your case a little more efficiently and may shave some time off your wait in the penalty box.
First thing is do your homework before you submit a medical application or otherwise get the FAA in the loop on your medical situation. Anything that is being reported for the first time to the FAA needs to be explained and documented when you visit the aviation medical examiner (AME) for a flight physical. This includes visits to health professionals (other than routine office visits to your primary care provider.) Cardiologists, neurologists, urologists, psychiatrists, or any specialist visits are red flags that require good reports explaining the nature of the visits and what you were treated for.
Likewise for any new “yes” responses in item 18, the Medical History section of the Medxpress application form. Same thing for many medications that are being reported for the first time. A daily aspirin, a statin, or meds for acid reflux aren’t likely to set your AME’s hair on fire, but other specific meds should be documented with a status letter from the prescribing doctor.
If you have any questions about your upcoming flight physical, a quick call to our medical certification staff may save you lots of time and frustration. We also have a robust medical certification library online that addresses many conditions that require FAA review before a medical certificate can be issued. Have both the historical records and the required current testing completed so you can provide it to the FAA directly after your flight physical. However, we encourage pilots to assume responsibility for getting your medical information to the FAA yourself rather than relying on your AME, your treating physician, or other health care providers to send records directly to the FAA. That way, you know what was sent, when it was mailed, by what method it was sent, and that it went to the correct FAA address.
Second, overnight mail (FedEx, UPS, USPS) is better than snail mail because you will send it directly to the Aerospace Medical Certification Division on the campus of the Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City instead of the downtown Oklahoma City post office box. That step alone gets it into the workflow process several days sooner than snail mail.
Fax works, but only for small amounts of data. If you have a package of more than, say 10 pages, it’s best to mail it in. And if you are sending ECG tracings from a stress test, don’t fax those since the images will probably not transmit clearly and won’t be legible. Generally, fax is better if the FAA has already reviewed part of the medical information and is just asking for a single report to complete the review. It’s always a good idea to make copies for yourself of everything you send in. Records do sometimes get “lost” in the organized chaos of the Certification Division, so having a backup set is smart, just in case.
Third, when putting your records together, don’t bother with any fancy binders or folders with the color-coded dividers. One of the first steps in the review process is scanning all hard copy records into digital format for attachment to your airman medical file before the case goes to a Legal Instrument Examiner’s (LIE) inbox. Just put the records in chronological order, preferably with the oldest information on top, the most current on the bottom with a rubber band or document clip. The file then will, hopefully, be scanned in the same order so when the LIE (reviewer) at the FAA gets the case, he/she can read through the case in order, and that will save time, too.
Fourth, identify every page of your documents. If you have a PI number from previous correspondence with the FAA, put that number on every page of the records you are sending. That helps identify you in the system. If you don’t have a PI number, your full name and date of birth are good data points for identification. If you have a LOT of records, it may be a good idea to have some adhesive stickers made up with the information printed on them to save time and avoid writer’s cramp.
Fifth, don’t send the same information by multiple ways. That is, don’t fax something to the FAA, then mail the same thing the next day. That will definitely delay processing of your case.
Lastly, enroll in AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services so that we can make periodic inquiries with the FAA to make sure the case hasn’t been dead-ended in some inbox. At the Plus level of PPS, we can also review the records package before you send it in to make sure you have everything that’s needed and that the information looks favorable for issuance of a certificate.
These steps may take a little more time on your part, but anything you can do to make your case get processed faster means you fly sooner rather than later!Gary Crump, AOPA's director of medical certification, is a former operating room technician and professional firefighter/emergency medical technician who has been assisting AOPA members for more than 30 years. He's also a medical expert for AOPA's Pilot Protection Services and holds a Commercial pilot certificate with instrument, multi-engine, and single engine seaplane ratings.