Self-Assess Your Medical State

So far, all pilots other than those flying under light sport pilot rules must possess a medical certificate in order to fly legally. These regulations may soon change and you may be able to fly with a driver's license and by self-assessment of whether you are fit to fly. Whether you have a medical certificate or not, there are many conditions that you should pay attention to. The bottom line is this: If anything to do with your physical or mental state threatens your ability to fly safely, you should not fly.

There are certain medical conditions that the FAA has identified that automatically disqualify you from flying as pilot in command. These conditions include such a wide range of ailments as angina pectoris, psychosis, substance abuse, unexplained disturbances of consciousness and many more. While light sport pilots are exempt from the medical certificate requirements, they still must restrict themselves from flying if they have these kinds of medical conditions. If you find out that you have one of these conditions and your medical certificate is still valid, you must stop flying. It is your responsibility to learn more about these disorders. If you are unsure whether you suffer from a condition that prohibits flight, consult a designated medical examiner.

In addition to ensuring that you don't have any disqualifying medical conditions, you should self-assess your current state. You may have heard of the I'M SAFE checklist — a mnemonic that can help you establish whether you are fit to fly.

I in the checklist stands for illness. If you are sick, your alterness, judgment, memory and ability to make calculations can be affected. These are all critical symptoms that will significantly increase your risk level during flight. It is pretty simple; if you are ill, don't fly.

M stands for medications. Whether a prescription drug or an over the counter medication, drugs have side effects that are likely to degrade your pilot skills. If you are unsure of how a drug will affect you, check with the pharmacist or your doctor. In most cases it is best to stay out of the cockpit while taking medications.

S is for stress – a condition that can cause all kinds of disease and most definitely has an effect on your ability to fly. If you have any inkling that external stressors could take away from your full attention to the complex task of flying, stay on the ground.

One condition that is clearly illegal is flying under the influence of alcohol – the A in I'M SAFE. But how do you assess whether you are still impaired as a result of consuming alcohol? The eight hours bottle to throttle rule is often not good enough. There have been several accidents recorded by the NTSB where the blood alcohol level was listed as the probable cause. Even after the eight hours, your blood alcohol level could be higher than the legal limit of 0.04 percent. You may be impaired for 48 hours or more if you had too much of a good time.

When you wake up after a night of drinking and you have plans to fly, don't just count the hours since your last drink. Think about how you feel. Do you have a headache? Are you tired? Is your stomach upset? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you should reschedule your flight. The best rule to follow is to not fly at all the day after you drink alcohol and in some cases you may have to ground yourself for two days or more.

Fatigue, the F in the acronym, could be related to a lack of sleep due to alcohol consumption or stress. Fatigue has no place in the cockpit. Get some rest and go flying on a different day.

Finally, the E stands for emotion. Emotions can cause stress, anger and depression, none of which should be present in the cockpit.

Assessing your medical state is no small task and it should not be taken lightly. Most accidents have more than one probable cause, but the most common one is pilot error. There could be many reasons why a pilot is not on top of his or her game. So take the extra time before each flight to make sure that you your body and your mind are ready.

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Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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