Sudden Surprise Trouble with a Medical Certificate

The Cessna Citation CJ1 patiently awaited its pilot’s latest dance with the FAA. Courtesy Dick Karl

Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the old nursery rhyme goes like this: “There was a little girl, / who had a little curl, / right in the middle of her forehead. / When she was good, / she was very good indeed, / and when she was bad she was horrid.” This sums up three days in September 2020 that rocked my world.

I was hit in the eye with a ball at age 18, lost vision for a week, then recovered to enjoy 20/20 vision. At age 63, I was diagnosed with increased intraocular pressure in my left eye. This is called “narrow angle,” or traumatic, glaucoma. I was prescribed eyedrops that controlled the pressure for the next 10 years.

When the eye drops failed to control pressure, I underwent a surgical procedure to vent the pressure via a drainage tube. This is called a Baerveldt shunt. As a result, I lost any meaningful vision in my left eye.

Last year, I sought a Statement of Demonstrated Ability, or SODA, after I passed a medical flight test. During the test, I had to demonstrate my ability to identify objects from the air, traffic in the air, read aeronautical charts while flying, and identify a field for a forced landing. I wrote about this last year, describing my MFT, which was conducted in a simulator with an FAA examiner. A simulator was used because I fly a Cessna Citation CJ1, and you can’t safely do these things for real in a jet. I thought I had a SODA forever. There are airline pilots flying with just one eye—so-called monocular pilots, I am told.

I airlined from New Hampshire to Orlando, Florida, to do recurrent training in the CJ1 at SimCom in the fall. The night I got back, my wife, Cathy, greeted me with a registered letter from the FAA. Because my medical exam had been done months previously and I had been flying safely, I had no hint as to the imposing, frightening, even threatening words I was about to see.

“Dear Mr. (sic) Karl, we are withdrawing your Authorization for Special Issuance of a Medical Certificate Authorization dated March 10, 2016, in accordance with Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 67.401(f), due to glaucoma. You are requested to immediately return any previously issued unexpired medical certificates. We are enclosing a postage-paid business reply envelope for this purpose. If you do not return your medical certificate within 14 days, your file will be sent to FAA legal counsel for consideration of legal enforcement action.”

Pretty horrid, don’t you think? What prompted somebody in Oklahoma City to send such a letter? There had been no change in vision status, no accident or incident, no reason I could think of. But the FAA moves in mysterious ways, and rather than fantasize as to what kind of human being would want to inflict such pain on another, I resolved to follow the suggestion in the letter: get another MFT. (I did think unflattering thoughts about the doctor who signed the letter, but I imagine he’s used to that.)

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

What happened next was the confluence of helpful people who work for the same FAA that caused the anguish. I called my regional flight surgeon, Dr. Susan Northrup; she’s the one who had arranged for my MFT last year. She expressed surprise that I had received the letter. She tried to extend my medical, but it had already been withdrawn in the FAA’s system, so no extension was possible. When I told her that I had just finished recurrent training at SimCom the day before, she asked that I send my training records to her. The SimCom CJ program director, Sarah Warner, immediately arranged for my records to be sent and attached a note exclaiming she had no idea I had a vision limitation when she supervised my 61.58 recurrent check ride. My wife pointed out that the forces working against me were men and those trying to help me were women.

Unfortunately, the records didn’t do the trick; another medical flight test was required. I remembered Steve Moore, the FAA examiner who had conducted last year’s MFT. I called his number, and another miracle, he answered his phone on the first ring. Sure, he remembered. Yes, his schedule had room. Yes, Dr. Northrup would authorize another medical flight test.

So, I rented an hour of simulator time at FlightSafety’s Class D CJ3 simulator ($1,600) and checked out round-trip tickets right back to Orlando ($1,000). By 5:30 p.m. two nights later, I was in the briefing room. My vision was just like it was last year. Steve was just as thorough (and nice) as last year.

By 7:30, I was out the door and in the arms of my flying buddy Bill Albert and his wife, who took me to dinner and put me up in their home. Steve sent the results to Dr. Northrup that night.

The next morning, I boarded a 0610 flight back north. That afternoon, as I was driving back home from the airport, I received an email from the regional air surgeon reinstating my medical. I think I even got a SODA this time, but I thought that last year. I’ll let you know.

To celebrate, I flew a short flight from Lebanon (KLEB), New Hampshire, to Albany (KALB), New York, and picked up close friends who had been stranded there. Over dinner, we reviewed the previous week. I had gone through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), rallied and had some wonderful people help me. They came through. They were “very good indeed.”

This story appeared in the January-February 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

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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