In Good Conscience...

On this recent July 4th, I finally made a day trip that I had thought about for several years to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Museum and Visitor Center in Church Creek, MD, south of Cambridge. 

From my location in southern Delaware, it’s not a long drive—about an hour and a half—but it had up to then seemed just far enough away to diminish my desire to actually go there. But hey, it was Independence Day, and I’ve always wanted to attend the celebration on the National Mall, too, but that’s more of a stretch of time and energy, so driving over with my bike became an easy decision.

Harriet Tubman was an activist and abolitionist in her time and one of the most important women in the sad but real story of slavery in America. Her then-infamous and now-famous underground railroad network transported dozens of family members and friends from the south to freedom in the northern states prior to the American Civil War. Between 1850 and 1860, Tubman left the safety of the northern states and returned to Maryland’s eastern shore 13 times, risking capture and fear of death or return to slavery, to lead that small number of slaves to freedom.

The Visitor Center is also adjacent to another treasure on the Eastern Shore, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a massive wildlife sanctuary that includes tidal marshes, mixed hardwood and loblolly pine forests, freshwater wetlands, and farmland. The vast refuge of 32,000 acres is located on the Atlantic flyway and provides rest and feeding grounds for migratory waterfowl. It is also home to one of the highest concentrations of nesting American bald eagles on the Atlantic coast. On my bike ride along the wildlife tour, I was fortunate enough to see a nesting pair less than 100 yards from the road.

Following that great respite and back at work, the topic du jour in medical certification continues to be the FAA/Department of Veterans Affairs investigation regarding undisclosed medical conditions and receipt of “medical disability benefits” on the FAA airman medical application, 8500-8(MedXPress). Your association’s medical certification specialists in our Pilot Information Center—Jacquie, Anita, Cade, and Annette—continue to receive calls from members who, in many cases, and “in good conscience,” failed to recognize that VA disability benefits are required to be reported as “medical disability benefits” on the medical application.

To date, the FAA has reviewed and made initial determinations on most of the nearly 5,000 airmen who may have a discrepancy on their medical application. Of that, approximately 1,000 airmen have received or will receive a letter directing them to correct previous errors by submitting a new medical application and undergoing a new flight physical with an aviation medical examiner. Many holders of first-class medical certificates had until July 31, 2023, to apply for and submit a new medical application and undergo a physical exam with an aviation medical examiner. Holders of second- and third-class medicals who received the most recent letters have until January 31, 2024, to complete a new medical examination.

Unfortunately, there is a subset of approximately 60 pilots whose omissions were more serious and may involve potentially disqualifying conditions. If you receive a letter from the FAA about this and have questions, give us a call so we can help you respond.

On a more positive note, an important breakthrough with the processing delays that was implemented back in April is making a huge difference. I recently spoke with FAA Federal Air Surgeon Susan Northrup, MD, and she is optimistic that the ability for aviation medical examiners (AMEs) to now upload medical records directly into the FAA medical processing system (called DIWS) has been a game changer. Half of the FAA’s designated AMEs now have exported over 10,000 documents from their office computers directly to FAA’s Medical Support System, and those applications submitted with complete documentation are being reviewed by the Legal Instrument Examiners (LIEs) or program analysts more quickly than the usual scanning process. That has reduced the scanning backlog to just a few days, so this is really the jump start that was needed to begin improving the turnaround times.

An important next goal that is more internal to the process is the conversion of the Aerospace Medical Certification Division’s unique method of coding medical pathology to the standardized ICD 10, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (that’s why it’s referred to simply as ICD 10!), which will allow the FAA to compare their data with existing databases to better identify and stratify diseases and conditions and more accurately assess risk for aviation medical certification purposes.

I know this seems way “in the weeds,” but it is important because of the FAA’s commitment to get as many people medically qualified as possible. Pilots who have complicated, multifaceted medical histories just take longer to review and arrive at a decision. With the standardization of their internal coding to that of the rest of the world, the FAA will have better information to use when considering someone for special issuance. The FAA wants to get to “yes” with as many applicants as possible. Better data leads to better certification decisions, and data drives that decision making. Yeah, it is bureaucratic, and it does take time, but for most pilots, despite the frustration of waiting, getting that medical certificate in the mail makes the wait worthwhile!

Be well and happy!


Portrait of Gary Crump, AOPA's director of medical certification with a Cessna 182 Skylane at the National Aviation Community Center.
Frederick, MD USA
Gary Crump
Gary is the Director of AOPA’s Pilot Information Center Medical Certification Section and has spent the last 32 years assisting AOPA members. He is also a former Operating Room Technician, Professional Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician, and has been a pilot since 1973.

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