Who needs a medical certificate?

Here is a question that I often get from new students, and pilots returning to flying after a lapse of many years - "I understand that I need to get a medical exam before I can start to take flying lessons, and then I need to do that again on a regular basis if I want to continue to fly.  Right?"

Well, like so many things that involve federal air regulations, the answer to this is, "Well sorta.".

When I started flying, back when Wilbur said "this is fun," and the FAA said "Whoa - Too much fun'" the rules were simple.   If you wanted to fly just for fun with a Private Pilot's License and not take any money, you needed a Third-Class  Medical Certificate, and every two years you would visit your aviation doctor and renew that.  If you wanted to get paid for your flying, you needed a Second-Class certificate, and that was good for one year.  And if you were fortunate enough to sit in the left front seat of an airliner, you needed a First-Class certificate, and you needed to renew that every six months. Change happens, and the requirements around getting a medical certificate for fun-flying became more complicated, (but less stringent for a lot of pilots.) And this is all covered owner FAR Part 61.23.

First thing to fall was the duration requirement. If you receive an unrestricted Third-Class certificate any time prior to your 40th birthday, it will not expire for 60 months. (And by the way, the expiration date is always the last day of the month).  If you received that same certificate on your 40th birthday or later , you will be due for a renewal in 24 months.  But wait, maybe you don't even need any certificate.

If you hold a Sport Pilot Certificate, or if that is the rating that you are working toward, forget everything I just said.  As long as you hold a valid driver's license, you do not need any medical certificate. (Big asterisk here - If you applied for a Third-Class certificate, and it was denied, this option is not available.) If you hold either a Private Pilot's Certificate or a Recreational Pilot's Certificate, the answer becomes "Maybe."

Basic Med
Third Class

First, other than our Sport Pilot friends, everyone needs Medical Certificate at least once.  This is because the new regulations state that one of the requirements for flying without a valid Third-Class certificate is that you did receive a medical certificate within the past 10 years.  So, you will need to pass a medical exam, but you will not need another one for 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years, depending on your circumstances

So here are the trade-offs for flying without a valid Third-Class certificate under a program that has come to be called Basic Med:

  • First, as I mentioned above, you need to have had a valid certificate within the past 10 years, and that most recent certificate must not had been revoked or restricted or denied. (More on that below);
  • You need to hold a valid driver's license;
  • You are restricted to flying airplanes weighing 6,000 pounds or less and you are restricted to flying airplanes with six seats or less; (And these two restrictions are based on what the aircraft manufacturer certified the plane, not how you are currently using it.)
  • You cannot fly at an altitude higher than 18,000' or at a speed greater than 250 knots;
  • At least once every four years, you must visit a licensed physician for a comprehensive medical exam, and that doctor needs to state that you are fit to fly.  However, you do not need to send that information to the FAA, and you do not need to carry that statement with you;
  • At least once every two years, you will need to take an on-line aeromedical exam and pass a quiz at the end.  The exam and quiz are available on-line from AOPA.  And again, you need to download the statement that you passed the quiz, but you don 't need to send that to anyone or make any kind of a logbook entry.
  • You can only fly within the United States - no jaunts to Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas.  Those countries still require that you hold a valid Third Class certificate

And here are some specific allowances

  • You can file and fly under both Visual and Instrument Flight Rules (VFR and IFR); Day, night - both allowed;
  • Airplanes, helicopters, experimental- all are welcome

So what if you have a medical condition that allows you to fly, but only on a waiver?  Big bonus here.  Instead of asking for that waiver on a recurrent basis as you would under a Third-Class certificate, you only need to apply once.  And then every four years your doctor will need to certify that you are physically able to continue to fly,

So, which is right for you- Third-Class Medical Certificate or Basic Med?  If you are student pilot, pursuing a Private or Recreational Rating, you have no choice – Third Class Medical for you. Private pilot with some waivers on your certificate? You are probably better off with Basic Med. Under 40? Probably better off with a Third Class.  Everyone else? You just need to look at your own situation.



Don't Practice Until You Get It Right - Practice Until You Don't Get It Wrong

Comments, questions, or just want to chat about anything aviation?  Drop me a note or call: 816-763-5205

updated August, 2020