Finishing a Pilot Certificate with a Disability

The first step to getting current is getting your medical. [File Photo: Shutterstock]

Q: I’d like to complete my private pilot certificate—I'm disabled with my left foot shortened by 7 cm following a minor accident in 2007, with both hands and feet still in perfect condition. Is there any flight school available to pursue my dream?

A: The short answer to your question is yes, there are flight schools that will accept you as a student to become current, a lot actually. When we asked your preferred school if there were any limitations to you becoming current on your private pilot certification, Ken Bro, chief flight instructor and program coordinator at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, noted the only requirement is for you to have at least a second class medical certificate before enrolling, and that your leg disability would not be an obstacle beyond that. With that being said, other flight instructors or schools may require a different medical certificate before beginning a program. Some Part 61 flight training locations should allow you to become current with a BasicMed certificate. The FAA has no specific wording that would prevent you from getting a medical certificate solely for the length of your leg.

FAA Medical Certificates

The FAA requires all pilots to have a medical certificate to fly an aircraft. There have traditionally been three types of medical certificates available for pilots to choose from: first class, second class, and third class. In recent years, the FAA has expanded the requirements for a medical certificate and now there is a fourth option, BasicMed. 

First Class 

First class medical exams are the most in depth of the four options and are usually held by professional pilots or student pilots looking to become professional pilots. To operate under the conditions of an airline transport pilot certificate, a first class medical is required. 

Requirements: 

  • 20/20 vision with or without correction
  • Must meet mental and neurological standards
  • ECG required at age 35 and annually after 40 years old 

Limitations: 

  • Must be renewed every 12 months, six months for those over age 40 
  • Not recognized by the military

Second Class

A second class medical—the type of medical you would need to reenter the program at SIU Carbondale—is required for pilots looking to carry passengers or cargo for hire, operating under the privileges of a commercial pilot certificate. While the second and third class medicals are very similar, the second class medical requires higher standards of vision and must be renewed more frequently. Most Part 141 flight schools require students to hold at least a second class medical. 

Requirements: 

  • 20/20 vision with or without correction
  • Must pass color vision test 
  • Must pass all health standards 

Limitations: 

  • Must be renewed every year 
  • Not able to fly for transportation airlines 

Third Class

For most recreational private pilots, a third class medical is the simplest way to meet the medical requirement. A third class medical holder is not eligible to fly for hire. The health standards for a third class medical are more lenient and can be renewed between two and five years depending on your age. 

Requirements: 

  • Must meet eye, ear, nose, throat, and other standards in examination
  • Must meet mental health standards
  • Must disclose health history 

Limitations: 

  • Must be renewed every five years, if under 40; every two years, if over 40
  • Pilots must fly recreationally, not for hire 
  • Not for commercial or airline pilots 

BasicMed 

BasicMed is a recent addition to the FAA medical certificate options and is perfect for those looking to fly for fun without an in-depth medical exam as the physical can be performed by your primary doctor. A BasicMed medical can only be used for recreational or private privileges, not for hire. While there are a few extra limitations to a BasicMed certificate, it may be the best fit for some pilots. 

Requirements: 

  • Possess a current and valid U.S. driver’s license
  • Held valid medical certificate after July 14, 2006
  • Receive a qualifying physical exam from a licensed physician, the comprehensive medical examination checklist must be followed 
  • Complete BasicMed course

Limitations: 

  • Limited to aircraft able to carry six passengers or less
  • Cannot fly an aircraft weighing more than 6,000 pounds
  • Cannot fly with more than five passengers
  • Must be flying recreationally 

What Should You Do?

In your case, being an older pilot with a disability, getting a medical may have some hiccups, but based on the FAA guidelines for aviation medical examiners, there shouldn’t be any major reasons why an FAA medical would not be granted. If you are worried about getting a medical certificate for other reasons, besides your leg, consider a BasicMed certificate and resuming your training with a flight instructor training under Part 61. Following a Part 61 track may also save you quite a bit of money and serve your purposes just as well. 

Based in Texas, Ashley is the former Marketing Manager at FLYING and focuses deeply on training and education. She graduated from the Baylor Institute for Air Science with a Bachelor's in Aviation Science and holds an MBA specializing in Marketing. She is an also instrument rated private pilot and licensed FAA dispatcher.
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