On the Flying Injured List

With Steve and Rei after the “forced landing” at Newark. Dick Karl

It all started with a girl in high school. She was cute, and her father was athletic. He worked in the court system just across from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and at lunchtime he would play a game of squash. I had no idea what that was, but he encouraged me to find out when I got to college. To impress his daughter, I did, and for the next 45 years I enjoyed this exhausting game that is much like racket ball except the ball doesn’t move, so you have to.

In the spring of my freshman year, I was introducing a friend to the game when I got hit in the eye with a squash ball rocketing off his racket. I immediately lost sight in my eye. I ran to the locker room and saw my eye full of blood, called a hyphema. I was admitted to the infirmary where both eyes were bandaged until the blood was resorbed and my eyesight restored. I was missing class and, more ­important to me, the beer and girls.

Four score and five years later, high pressure was detected in my left eye; I had a form of glaucoma caused by trauma, so-called narrow angle glaucoma. Untreated, the optic nerve atrophies and blindness is inevitable. So began my skirmish with eye pressure. At first, I was treated with eye drops that decrease the production of aqueous humor or increase the drainage of the fluid. If this didn’t work, an operation on the eye was necessary. One ophthalmologist told me that my flying career would be over. I became more compulsive about the eye drops.

After I retired from Part 135 ­flying though, I began to have a decrease in the visual fields in the left eye. An operation called the Baerveldt shunt was proposed. You might want to watch this procedure on YouTube—only if you plan never to have this done to you and aren’t squeamish. It is akin to a hot poker to the eye.

Postoperatively, my vision was worse, and I knew that I would not pass my next FAA medical exam. I would need a Statement of Demonstrated Ability from the FAA before I could get back in the air. The FAA has made provisions for pilots with color blindness and decreased vision in one eye, among other ­maladies. I’m told that even some ­airline pilots with first-class medical ­certificates are one-eyed.

So on April 1, I faxed my required forms to the FAA in Oklahoma City. Two weeks later, having heard nothing, I called my regional flight ­surgeon’s office in Atlanta, where they confirmed that the fax had been received, but it “had not yet been uploaded.” A helpful person said she would upload the form if I emailed it to her.

On May 6, five weeks after ­faxing the form, I received by mail a new medical certificate dated one year prior (in other words, about to expire in 25 days) with the limitation: “Valid for medical flight test only, not valid for solo flight.” This superseded any previous medical. I had just a short time to arrange a medical flight test to prove I could see well enough to fly. I was advised to make an appointment with the supervising inspector at the Tampa Flight Standards District Office.

Since I live close to the FSDO, I went over there. A forbidding sign greeted me: “The Tampa FSDO will see the public by appointment only.” This did not bode well. After talking my way in with a dozen donuts, I was told that both supervisors were away for a week of training and my request for a medical flight test would be placed on the appropriate supervisor’s desk. “They assign the ­examiners,” the receptionist said.

I waited. I did not want to be a pest or offend anybody and ruin my chances for a quick reply. None ever came. If it weren’t for another piece of luck developing in a separate part of the universe, I’d still be waiting.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

That good fortune came in the form of Bob, the FAA man from the Orlando FSDO. Bob was in Tampa for an awards ceremony when I met him. He quoted “Locksley Hall,” a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, that signaled to me he was a kindred spirit. I asked if he might be able to help me get unstuck with the medical flight test.

To my happy surprise, Bob ­suggested forwarding the appropriate paperwork from Tampa to Orlando and shortly thereafter called me with his colleague, Steve, on the line. Steve is typed and current in my airplane, the Cessna CJ1 (CE 525) and therefore eligible to give me the MFT.

What about the short time frame? And would I have to find a pilot to get me to Orlando for the test? Not to worry. These tests for pilots ­flying jets are best done in the ­simulator. FlightSafety has a level-D sim in Orlando that qualifies, Steve told me.

Well, I wouldn’t need a ­medical to fly a simulator. And I would have time to review the proposed tasks as ­published by the FAA. They included the “ability to select ­emergency-landing fields, to ­simulate forced ­landings at difficult fields…to recognize other aircraft and to read aeronautical charts,” among other things. FlightSafety could rent me a CJ3 sim with ­instructor for $1,640 an hour.

And so I set out by car to FlightSafety in Orlando. Turns out, I already knew Steve from a previous Part 135 check ride. Rienaldo—“Call me Rei”—was our instructor. Steve made sure we all were in agreement about the plan. We prepped for a 13R departure out of KJFK, climb to 4,500 feet and then we’d look for landmarks to prove I could see something.

The sim’s idea of daylight and mine were markedly different; the cockpit was dark. Taxi was very rudder sensitive, but I managed to find the ­runway without hitting anything. Cleared for takeoff, I called out, “70 knots, V1 and rotate.” With positive rate, I ­fingered the gear up.

At 400 feet, I called, “400, V2 plus 10, flaps up, sync on, after takeoff’s complete.” My reward? Rei said, “Oh, we have a pro here.” This made my day.

Steve asked me to identify Coney Island, the Atlantic Ocean and then said, “You have an engine fire, where will you land?” I hit “direct to nearest airport” on the Collins FMS and saw that KFRG in Farmingdale, New York, was four miles to the right. “Do you see it?” asked Steve. It was almost under our right side. I said, “It is right there on your side.” “Circle it,” he said.

We ran through the other tasks and then—four miles from Newark Airport at 4,500 feet, with the rabbit in sight—Rei failed both engines. Somehow, I hadn’t quite processed that this was how we were going to simulate a forced landing. I thought there would be some power. Gear down, flaps 15, I started a right 270-degree turn at 130 knots. When the airport came into view, I saw that I was high and selected flaps 35. “No hydraulics,” was all Rei said. Right.

We made it down on the ­runway. The brakes worked. Thanks to Susan Northrup, the regional flight ­surgeon in Atlanta, I had that SODA a week later. That same afternoon my trusted aviation medical examiner, Tom Beaman, fit me in and declared me good to go.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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