360 Degrees

Americans have a bipolar relationship with government. On one hand we decry “oppressive regulation and interference” while on the other; we actually beg and lobby for it. But, hey it’s our nature and probably why most politicians mimic Janus and wear two faces, one for the independent and one for the dependent. We must make them crazy – Get OUT of my pocket you thieving Washington scum, and in the same breath – WHY you lazy good-for-nothing louts need do something about this. This has always been the case with aviation for as long as I can remember. We want a ‘hands off’ approach via the Pilot Bill of Rights while demanding direct intervention via medical reform. Aviation started out as a perceived passing fad that the government had absolutely no desire to regulate, motivate, and if anything, they kept it at arm’s length viewed as little more than rampant psychopaths flying about in the sky.
Can you blame them after the Roaring Twenties? Returning WW I pilots were little more than gypsy minstrels doing anything to stay in the air while earning enough for a cheap meal and a flop. Penny-a-pound rides; wing walking, aerobatics, and crashing airplanes into buildings for money at the county fair, did little to inspire politicians into parting with taxpayer dollars in order to finance flying lunatics with a death wish. There was no real commerce in it, anyway. Then Lindbergh’s epoch flight came along and in 1927 they decided that flying might be here to stay, especially long-distance commercial flight. So they subsidized it via the postal airmail service. No one was crazy enough to fly as a passenger, but they just might pay for next day mail delivery, or more like second and third day if you got it at all.
It was a perennial loser but the government was willing to play along and when it took off – literally – they decided that they better start licensing these flying fools and the guys that maintain the fool’s plane. And let’s not forget parachute riggers: The guys packing the fool’s chutes, since they were more critical than either of the former. Let’s face it, lots of mail pilots were “hitting the silk” when they couldn’t land in the fog. Since all of the guys flying were young healthy war pilots the medical issue hardly cropped up although cirrhosis of the liver was a more of a probability. Actually, aviation medicine had been around since 1892, when French doctor Paul Bert discovered altitude sickness while examining two balloon pilots that had made it to 29,000 feet, but nothing formal was instituted until 1918, when the first military flight surgeons were commissioned. Eye tests were common since one thing we instinctively knew was that hawks and eagles have good eyes and so should pilots, but as for a complete physical…not so much.
The first U.S. pilot licenses were issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), a French aero club, and signed by Orville Wright. Medical qualifications were – you’re breathing, not blind, and can distinguish distance and color. Redundancy wasn’t even a big deal. Pioneer record-breaking pilot Wiley Post had one eye. It worked and a whole host of pilots were brought up under that system. It wasn’t until the military instituted an aeromedical division that real medicals were institutionalized. By the mid-1930s you had a government issued pilot’s license in lieu of an aero club card, and later a flight surgeon issued a medical to legitimize the government license. Trouble was – pilots tend to lie to flight surgeons also institutionalizing an innate distrust of government appointed flight regulators and that’s what flight surgeons really are. If they deem you healthy, you fly. If they say nay, you’re grounded. Of course, they see you so sporadically (depending on class of medical) that it’s a joke. The rest of the time the onus is on you, as in self-certifying. It’s called responsibility. If you have a severe head cold you don’t call the flight surgeon for his opinion, you ground yourself. If you get cancer, you ground yourself and then call the flight surgeon. As of July 15, of this year we’re medically full circle to where aviation had its genesis.
Professional pilots flying commercially will live under the continued periodic observation of a flight surgeon, but for all of us fair-weather fliers if you have a valid medical for 10 years, you’re grandfathered. After that a “regular” doctor’s visit once every four years and viewing of a free online aeromedicine course does the trick. If it’s a new pilot, all you need do is to pass the first exam – first time. As I said, government unchecked can be onerous, oppressive, and nearly omnipresent. Government that is thoughtful and reasoned can create things like sensible medical reform and we should thank Congressmen and Senators heartily when they do the right thing.