A Self-Evident Solution

floatplane

Times are tough for general aviation, and we need a solid partner and advocate in Washington now more than ever. Unfortunately, the FAA is proving to be the exact opposite — a lead weight — and it’s becoming a big problem.

Complaining about the FAA has been a popular spectator sport for decades. I feel for those who work at the agency because the most of the individuals I’ve interacted with there have been pleasant and professional. They often seem as hamstrung and frustrated with the status quo as those of us on the outside. In fact, I took my commercial glider checkride with an FAA examiner from the Riverside FSDO in 2004 and consider it a model of how practical tests should be run. So I’m not suggesting we toss the baby out with the bathwater.

But somewhere, somehow, as an organization, the inexplicable policy decisions, poor execution, and awful delays in performing even the most basic functions lead one to the conclusion that the agency is beset by a bureaucratic sclerosis which is grinding the gears of progress to a rusty halt on many fronts.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: Opposite Direction Approaches Banned

If you’re not instrument-rated, the concept of flying an approach in the “wrong direction” probably seems… well, wrong. But it’s not. For decades, pilots have flown practice approaches in VFR conditions for training purposes without regard for the wind direction. There are many logical reason for doing so: variety, the availability of a specific approach type, to practice circling to a different runway for landing, and so on. John Ewing, a professional instructor based on California’s central coast, described this as “going up the down staircase”.

For reasons no one has been able to explain (and I’ve inquired with two separate FSDOs in my area), this practice is no longer allowed at towered fields. Here’s what John wrote about the change:

…the FAA has decided that opposite direction approaches into towered airports are no longer allowed. To the uninitiated, practice approaches to a runway when there’s opposite direction traffic may seem inherently dangerous, but it is something that’s been done safely at many airports for as long as anyone can remember. One example in Northern California is Sacramento Executive where all the instrument approaches are to runway 2 and 90% of the time runway 20 is in use.

At KSAC, the procedure for handling opposite direction approaches is simple and has worked well (and without incident, to my knowledge): The tower instructs the aircraft inbound on the approach to start their missed approach (usually a climbing left turn) prior to the runway threshold and any traffic departing the opposite direct turns in the other direction.

For areas like the California Central Coast, the restriction on opposite direction instrument approaches has been in place since I arrived in June and it has serious implications for instrument flight training since the ILS approaches for San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara are likely to be opposite direction 90% of the time. For a student to train to fly an ILS in a real aircraft, you need to fly quite a distance. Same goes for instrument rating practical tests that require an ILS because the aircraft is not equipped with WAAS GPS and/or there’s no RNAV approach available with LPV minima to a DA of 250 feet or lower.

The loss of opposite-direction approaches hurts efficiency and is going to increase the time and money required for initial and recurrent instrument training. As good as simulators are, there’s no substitute for the real world, especially when it comes to things like circling to land. Between the low altitude, slow airspeed, and division of attention between instruments and exterior references required for properly executing the maneuver, circling in low weather can be one of the most challenging and potentially hazardous aspects of instrument flying. If anything, we need more opportunities to practice this. Banning opposite-direction approaches only ensures we’ll do it less.

Example 2: The Third Class Medical

Eliminating the third class medical just makes sense. I’ve covered this before, but it certainly bears repeating: glider and LSA pilots have been operating without formal medical certification for decades and there is no evidence I’m aware of to suggest they are any more prone to medical incapacitation than those of us who fly around with that coveted slip of paper in our pocket.

AOPA and EAA petitioned the government on this issue two years and nine months ago. The delay has been so egregious that the FAA Administrator had to issue a formal apology. Obviously pilots are clamoring for this, but we’re not the only ones:

Congress is getting impatient as well. In late August, 32 members of the House General Aviation Caucus sent a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging him to expedite the review process and permit the FAA to proceed with its next step of issuing the proposal for public comment. Early in September 11 Senators, who were all co-sponsors of a bill to reform the medical process, also asked the Department of Transportation to speed up the process.

So where does the proposed rule change now? It is someplace in the maze of government. Officially it is at the Department of Transportation. Questions to DOT officials are met with no response, telling us to contact the FAA. FAA officials comment that “it is now under executive review at the DOT.”

The rule change must also be examined by the Office of Management and Budget.

When the DOT and OMB both approve the proposal — if they do — it will be returned to the FAA, which will then put it out for public comment. The length of time for comments will probably be several months.

After these comments are considered, the FAA may or may not issue a rule change.

It occurs to me that by the time this process is done, it may have taken nearly as long as our involvement in either world war. Even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll have an acceptable outcome.

Example 3: Hangar Policy

The common sense approach would dictate that as long as you’ve got an airplane in your hangar, you should be able to keep toolboxes, workbenches, American flags, a refrigerator, a golf cart or bicycle, or anything else you like in there. But the FAA once again takes something so simple a cave man could do it and mucks it up. The fact that the FAA actually considers any stage of building an airplane to be a non-aeronautical activity defies both logic and the English language. Building is the very essence of the definition. People who’ve never even been inside an airplane could tell you that. In my mind, this hangar policy is the ultimate example of how out of touch with reality the agency has become.

General aviation flight activity has been on a long steady decline.  Reversing the trend will require help from many areas -- including the FAA.

General aviation flight activity has been on a long steady decline. Reversing the trend will require help from many areas — including the FAA.

Example 4: Field Approvals

These have effectively been gone from aviation for the better part of a decade. It used to be that if you wanted to add a new WhizBang 3000 radio to your airplane, a mechanic could get it approved via a relatively simple, low-cost method called a field approval. For reasons nobody has even been able to explain (probably because there is no valid explanation), it became FAA policy to stop issuing these. If you want that new radio in your airplane, you’ll have to wait until there’s an STC for it which covers your aircraft. Of course, that takes a lot longer and costs a boatload of money, if it happens at all. But the FAA doesn’t care.

Homebuilts put whatever they want into their panels and you don’t see them falling out of the sky. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Example 5: RVSM Approvals

Just to show you that it’s not only the light GA segment that’s suffering, here’s a corporate aviation example. The ability to fly in RVSM airspace — the area between FL290 and FL410 — is very important. Being kept below FL290 is not only inefficient and bad for the environment, it also forces turbine aircraft into weather they would otherwise be able to avoid. The alternative is to fly at FL430 and above, which can mean leaving fuel and/or payload behind, or flying in a paperwork-induced coffin corner.

Unfortunately, RVSM approval requires a Letter of Authorization from the FAA. If the airplane is sold, the LOA is invalidated and the new owner has to go through the paperwork process with the FAA from step one. Even if the aircraft stays at the same airport, maintained by the same people, and flown by the same crew. If you so much as change the name of your company, the LOA is invalidated. If you sneeze or get a hangnail, they’re invalidated.

From AIN Online:

Early this year the FAA agreed to a streamlined process to handle RVSM LOA approvals, but for the operator of a Falcon 50 that is not the case. He told AIN that he has been waiting since April for an RVSM LOA.

Because the LOA hasn’t been approved, this operator can fly the Falcon 50 at FL290 or lower or at FL430 or above. On a hot day, a Falcon 50 struggles at FL430. “The other day ISA was +10,” he told AIN, “and we are just hanging there at 43,000 at about Mach 0.72. If we had turbulence we could have had an upset. We’re right there in the coffin corner. Somebody is going to get hurt.”

On another recent flight in the Falcon, “There was a line of storms in front of us. We’re at FL290. They couldn’t let us climb, and I was about to declare an emergency. I’m not going to run my airplane through a hailstorm. It’s turbulent and the passengers are wondering what’s going on.”

When forced to fly below FL290, the Falcon burns 60 percent more fuel, he said. The company’s three Hawkers have a maximum altitude of FL410, and LOA delays with those forced some flights to down to lower altitudes. “We had one trip in a Hawker before it received its RVSM LOA,” he added, “and they got the crap kicked out of them. Bobbing and weaving [to avoid thunderstorms] over Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska in the springtime, you’re going to get your [butt] kicked.” The Hawker burns about 1,600 pph at FL370, but below FL290 the flow climbs to more than 2,000 pph.

It’s bad for safety and the FAA knows it. If they were able to process paperwork quickly, it might not be such an issue, but many operators find that it takes many months — sometimes even a year or more — to get a scrap of paper which should take a few minutes at most.

Show Me the Money

So what’s behind the all this? Americans love to throw money at a problem, so is this a budget cut issue? Perhaps the FAA is a terribly cash-starved agency that simply isn’t given the resources to do the jobs we’re asking of it.

According to the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, that’s not the case. He testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure earlier this week that the FAA’s budget has been growing even as traffic declines:

The growth of the agency’s budget has been unchecked, despite the managerial failings and the changes in the marketplace. Between 1996 and 2012, the FAA’s total budget grew 95 percent, from $8.1 billion to $15.9 billion. During that same period, the agency’s air traffic operations dropped by a fifth. As a result, taxpayers are now paying the FAA nearly twice as much to do only 80 percent of the work they were doing in the 1990s.

Over that same 16-year span, the FAA’s personnel costs, including salary and benefits, skyrocketed from $3.7 billion to $7.3 billion — a 98 percent increase — even though the agency’s total number of full-time workers actually fell 4 percent during that time.

Self-Evident Solutions

Okay, we’ve all heard the litany of issues. From the inability to schedule a simple checkride to big problems with NextGen development or the ADS-B mandate, you’ve probably got your own list. The question is, how do we fix the problem?

I think the answer is already out there: less FAA oversight and more self-regulation. Look closely at GA and you’ll see that the segments which are furthest from FAA interference are the most successful. The Experimental Amateur-Built (E-AB) sector and the industry consensus standards of the Light Sport segment are two such examples. The certified world? Well many of them are still building the same airframes and engines they did 70 years ago, albeit at several times the cost.

Just as non-commercial aviation should be free of the requirement for onerous medical certification, so too should it be free of the crushing regulatory weight of the FAA. The agency would make a far better and more effective partner by limiting its focus to commercial aviation safety, promoting general aviation, and the protection and improvement of our infrastructure.


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

ADS-B: Now or Later?

Dynon glass panel with ADS-B weather displayed

I’ve been seeing more and more opinions from aviation writers about how aircraft owners should be equipping their ships for ADS-B sooner rather than later. The reasoning goes like this: the market for ADS-B compliant products is mature and competitive, so prices aren’t likely to decline much further. And if you wait until closer to 2020, you’ll be caught in a mad rush of owners trying to comply with the mandate and find it virtually impossible to get an appointment with the avionics shop.

Call me skeptical. Oh, not about the slow process at the shop — that part I can very much believe. But we’re talking about a piece of computer technology here. Five years is an eternity for electronics in general, and computer components in particular. Look how far glass panel avionics have come in the last half-decade. You get twice the product at one-third the price today.

Compare the $50,000 price of the ubiquitous G1000 with the new Garmin G3X Touch, for example. These products get cheaper while they add ever more features. It’s not one or the other — you get both at the same time. If I had told you in 2009 that a G3X Touchscreen system with synthetic vision, video input, a built-in WAAS GPS receiver, ADAHRS, magnetometer, OAT probe, and engine sensor interface would be available in just a few years for $6,000, you’d probably have said I was crazy. Most of today’s ADS-B-compliant offerings cost more than that all by themselves. But here we are, and I can’t help but wonder what will be available in five more years. I’m betting it’s going to be more powerful and reliable while costing less than existing boxes.

Another reason to delay: the Rule That Will Not Change may very well (wait for it) change. The FAA has been taking a hard line on that, claiming it will not under any circumstances consider a delay in the mandate’s effective date. But even the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has been witheringly critical. And let’s face it, the FAA is not known for completing their projects on time. “But this time will be different!”, the Administrator proclaims. We’ll see.

The Feds are also under pressure from EAA, AOPA, and others who are making a pretty air-tight case about the damage this will do to the GA rank-and-file.

[AOPA’s] letter noted that the minimum investment of $5,000 to $6,000 to install ADS-B Out equipment is “far too high” for many GA operators, especially given that the general aviation fleet includes at least 81,564 certified, piston-powered, fixed-wing aircraft that are valued at $40,000 or less and GA owners have no way to recoup their costs. The actual number of GA aircraft valued at or below $40,000 could be much higher if experimental aircraft are also taken into account. Pushing ahead with the mandate as written will ground thousands of general aviation aircraft at a time when the industry is just beginning to recover from the recession.

It’s also worth noting that today’s ADS-B solutions are not always an appropriate fit for today’s aircraft. A good example of that would be a Pitts biplane. Where are you supposed to put all that equipment? If you’re choking down the bill for ADS-B Out, wouldn’t you want the “free” traffic and weather data that come with the expenditure? Take a look at this Pitts instrument panel and think about where you’d put a display — portable or otherwise. And keep in mind, there’s nothing extraneous there. Just about everything you see there is required by Part 91 for day VFR flying.

A typical Pitts instrument panel.  Not exactly tailor-made for the ADS-B era, is it?

A typical Pitts instrument panel. Not exactly tailor-made for the ADS-B era, is it?

Many airplanes are going to have this problem. It’s not limited to piston powered airplanes, either. I know several Gulfstream IV operators who aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to spend $1 million equipping their $3 million airplane (yes, that’s what some older G-IVs are worth these days) for ADS-B. They have other mandates on the horizon as well, including ADS-Contract and CPDLC, and must comply with the minimum equipment requirements for all the places they fly. To call it complicated would be an understatement. In fact, this is just as big a problem for the legacy jet fleet as it is for the light GA piston fleet. I’ve said it before and I’ll said it again: aviation’s fortunes are inexorably linked, whether you’re operating a bizjet, trainer, airliner, or ultralight. What affects one of us affects all of us.

Here’s something else to think about: even if the deadline slips a bit, the technical ADS-B requirements are not likely to change, so building a product that complies with the minimum ADS-B “Out” specifications should not only get cheaper as time goes on, but also come to market at a faster rate than we’ve seen with other avionics. Just a few days ago, for example, Garmin announced a (relatively) low-cost ADS-B solution that doesn’t required a multi-function display at all.

Most avionics upgrades are optional. This one is mandatory, so there’s a captive market out there and it’s logical to assume every OEM wants a piece of it. Technological progress aside, competition tends to drive prices down, not up. Is it crazy to think ADS-B solutions will be selling for half the GDL-84’s announced $4,000 price by the time 2020 rolls around?

Even if the price doesn’t go down a penny, inflation alone will shave off another ten percent of the effective cost between now and then, and give aircraft owners more time to save up. Flying is certainly not getting any cheaper, but if there’s one area where your money goes further than ever, it’s avionics — especially if you’re blessed with an “Experimental” placard.

I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t schedule a date with your avionics shop for compliance, but if it was me, I’d be waiting until a lot closer to the deadline before pulling the trigger on equipment choices. Nobody can predict the future, but when it comes to avionics, you can feel pretty confident that the choices in 2020 are going to be less expensive and more capable than anything available today.

Trust Us — We’re Professionals

ipad-flight-deck

I’ve seen some ill-conceived policies emanate from the FAA over the course of my professional flying career. Some diktats are just busy work, while others fail to achieve an otherwise admirable end. But the worst are those that create the very hazard they are supposed to prevent.

Case in point: the recent adoption of 14 CFR 121.542(d), which prohibits the use of any personal electronic devices in flight. According to the FAA, this rule is “intended to ensure that non-essential activities do not affect flight deck task management or cause a loss of situational awareness during aircraft operation.”

Sounds great on the surface, doesn’t it? I mean, who could possibly oppose a rule which the Feds ostensibly see as the aeronautical equivalent of a ban on texting while driving? Keeping distractions at bay and pilots focused on flying has got to be a wonderful enhancement for safety.

But it’s not. The flight profiles of airlines, cargo haulers, charter companies, fractionals, corporate flight departments, and even private GA operators often dictate long stretches of straight-and-level flight with the autopilot on. Surely the FAA is aware of this. Now add in circadian rhythm issues associated with overnight flights, a dark cockpit with minimal radio traffic, and a flight crew pairing who have run out of things to talk about. There’s nothing to do but stare off into the inky darkness for hour upon hour. It’s a recipe for falling asleep.

Say what you will about distractions on the flight deck, but I’d much rather see a pilot peruse an issue of AOPA Pilot while in cruise than to have that individual zoned out or inadvertently napping. For one thing, the process of waking up takes time, whereas an alert human need only change focus. We already do that dozens of times on every flight anyway. Check in on the engine instruments, then answer a question from a passenger, then look out the window, then consult a chart. We do this all day long.

Is there much difference between reading a magazine and delving into the minutia of some random page of the Jeppesen manual when they’re both a form of busy work to keep the mind engaged during slow periods in cruise? I sincerely doubt a roundtable of experts in automation and human factors would have come up with a PED ban.

I can understand prohibiting them below, say, 10,000′ when the sterile cockpit rule is in effect. That’s a busy time for pilots, and non-essential items are naturally stowed at that point anyway. But electronic devices in and of themselves can be helpful in staving off the ultimate distraction. “Flight to Safety” author and Airbus pilot Karlene Petitt said it best:

Numerous studies have shown that one of the tips to help fall to sleep is to NOT watch television or work on your computer at a minimum of an hour before bedtime. The light suppresses melatonin production and stimulates brain activity. I’m not sure about you, but I want my pilots alert with stimulated brains. Give them something to do to keep them awake.

As many of you have probably noted, this rule is located in Part 121 and therefore only applies to scheduled airlines. From maintenance requirements to medical certification, their regs are the strictest around, so perhaps this seems much ado about nothing for a general aviation audience. But the FAA is of the opinion that this limitation should reach a lot further than United and Delta:

Recommended Actions: This prohibition on personal use of electronic devices on the flight deck in the final rule is applicable only to operations under part 121. However, Directors of Safety and training managers for all operators under parts 135 and 125, as well as part 91K, are encouraged to include operating procedures in their manuals and crewmember training programs prohibiting flightcrew members from using such devices for personal use during aircraft operation.

Will this eventually reach down to Part 91? Who knows. Even if it doesn’t, the real problem is that the FAA is spoon-feeding each and every individual action and prohibition to us without making allowances for the differences inherent in each type of operation. One-size-fits-all is wonderful for tube socks and scarves, but when it comes to flight safety, it’s just bad policy.

The smart way to go about this would be to leave it to the individual company, flight department and/or individual to determine what PED policy best serves the cause of safety. If you’re Southwest Airlines or a charter operator company flying VLJs, you probably aren’t flying long-haul trips and might be fine with reasonable PED limitations. Certainly using them below 10,000′ could be prohibited. But if you’re flying international cargo in a jumbo jet or hopping continents in a Global 5000 on legs of twelve or thirteen hours? That personal electronic device could be incredibly helpful in maintaining alertness.

Whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, pilots are a professional lot who can be trusted to make their own decisions about portable electronic devices.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

A Stab in the Back

After a long night of flying, we were rewarded with this brilliant sunrise as we passed over Manhattan at 3,000 feet.

“Jeez, this is the worst muscle pull ever“, I thought while squirming uncomfortably on the bed in my hotel room. It was eight o’clock in the morning and we had just arrived in New York after flying a red-eye trip from Los Angeles. The transcontinental journey was smooth and quiet, our passengers snoozing in a dark cabin the whole night while we kept watch up front. The sky was just beginning to lighten when we shut down on the Atlantic ramp at Long Island’s historic Republic Airport and wished our sleepy customers a good morning as they trudged down the airstair and into the FBO .

Although it’s been defunct for decades, one can feel the heavy weight of the airport’s legendary namesake hanging in the air like a ghost on those misty early-morning arrivals into FRG. Republic Aviation first appeared on the scene there in the mid-1930’s, and over the next three decades built some of the most famous aircraft in history. The P-47 Thunderbolt, F-105 Thunderchief, A-10 Warthog, and even the pudgy-looking RC-3 Seabee amphibian. Eventually, the post-Vietnam downsizing of the U.S. military claimed the storied Republic factory, but the airport still stands as a testament to What Was.

F-105 Thunderchiefs under construction at the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale, NY.  Though it acquired the unflattering nickname "Thud", the 105 was a capable fighter-bomber which served from 1958 to 1984.

F-105 Thunderchiefs under construction at the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale, NY. Though it acquired the unflattering nickname “Thud”, the 105 was a capable fighter-bomber which served from 1958 to 1984.

We blasting out of Long Island, witnessing a brilliant sunrise during the relatively low-altitude repositioning flight to Teterboro, New Jersey. After hours spent staring into the dark sky, it was a welcome and well-deserved treat to be vectored directly over Manhattan at 3,000 feet while the amber hues of a fresh day splashed nature’s wake-up call across earth and sky.

If there’s one positive aspect of overnight flights, it’s the opportunity to witness a beautiful sunrise. Sunsets are okay too, but when you’re heading westbound they tend to last for hours and remain directly in your face as you race the time zones backwards. No matter how exhilarating, eventually they become too much of a good thing, especially when you’re 45,000 feet up and above much of the protective atmosphere. In fact, if you’re traveling fast enough, the sun will actually come back up while heading west. It must be strange enjoying a complete sunset twice on the same day. As supersonic business jets become a reality, I hope I’ll get to experience that first-hand.

I assume that "big apple" everyone's always talking about must be down there in Central Park somewhere...

I assume that “big apple” everyone’s always talking about must be down there in Central Park somewhere…

A Pain in the… Back

Anyway, I helped offload what felt like a quarter-ton of awkward baggage from the Gulfstream’s aft compartment before retiring to the Marriott. It was shortly after checking in to my room that the lower left area of my back began to ache. “Probably strained it lifting those bags”, I assumed.

Sitting in a seat for five hours and then hopping up to immediately start moving baggage is a good way to hurt yourself, especially in the ergonomically-incorrect confines of the -IV’s cargo area. It’s essentially a walk-in closet-sized space with a flat floor but constantly curving walls and ceiling. You’re literally putting square pegs into a round hole, and loading or unloading things doesn’t always allow for proper lifting posture. “Well, it’s not the first time I’ve tweaked my back, and I’m sure it won’t be the last”, I thought.

I took a couple of ibuprofen, expecting them to relieve the pain. But they seemed to have the opposite effect. If anything the pulsing discomfort of the strained muscles actually got worse, and no matter what position I’d sit, stand, or lie in there was no relief. “I must have really messed myself up somehow…”

It went on like that for a good hour or two before the pain finally subsided. It seemed logical that the discomfort might prevent the strained muscle from relaxing, so I resolved to take it easy for the rest of the day and allow the pulled muscle to heal. A bit of careful stretching and some hot water from the shower seemed to help, and eventually the pain went away. The rest of the trip was uneventful and I considered the issue resolved.

Later that week, my wife and I spent the day at her brother’s house in Topanga Canyon celebrating our niece’s birthday. That evening, we headed downtown to see LA Opera’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It took a while to get used to Previn’s style, and from where we were sitting the orchestra — located on the stage instead of in the pit — overshadowed the singers, but Renée Fleming still gave an an outstanding performance as Blanche. The role was written specifically for her, and it’s easy to see why.

After the performance, we returned to Topanga and as we were staying our goodbyes to the family, that dull aching pain slowly came back. What the heck is going on here, I wondered? Was it from sitting for three hours at the Dorothy Chandler? It was a mystery to me how I could have re-injured myself.

Eureka!

As we drove home, I suffered more and more as the ride progressed. Kristi and I tried to figure out what was going on. Knowing where the pain was located, and she mused out loud about the various body parts located in that region. I was only half-listening when she mentioned something about the kidney — and like a flash it hit me: I must have a kidney stone!

I’d had one about twenty years earlier, before I started flying. I reported it on my very first medical application (and every one thereafter via the “previously reported–no change” schtick). It never prevented me from obtaining any class of medical certification, although the FAA’s aeromedical branch did send a letter asking for a couple of tests back when I first started flying.

As luck would have it, my ‘eureka’ moment occurred on a Friday evening at the start of a three-day weekend. I phoned my doctor’s office and received a return call from a nurse who basically said I’d have to wait until Tuesday to even schedule an appointment. Four days! And who knows when I’d be able to get on the doctor’s calendar.

An urgent care center wasn’t going to be much help, because they wouldn’t have x-ray or CT machines. The only timely option for determining what was going on would be an emergency room visit. At first I demurred. Even with insurance, a short trip to the ER can easily cost a thousand dollars. I’d seen that first-hand. But the following morning the pain was still there, so Kristi dutifully drove me to the Hoag Hospital in Irvine and within 30 minutes had confirmation of my suspicions: a kidney stone.

Kidney stones rarely present pain in the  kidney or bladder.  It's the tiny tube connecting the two that's the problem.

Kidney stones rarely present pain in the kidney or bladder. It’s the tiny tube connecting the two that’s the problem.

That was the bad news. The good news is that it was fairly small and located at the bottom of the ureter, the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder. These little rocks only cause pain when they’re stuck in the ureter; once they pass into the bladder, you’re home free. The doctor estimated that the stone would be gone within a day or two, so he prescribed a pain killer and sent me on my way with a fine strainer to urinate through in order to catch the tiny object when it exited the body. In theory, the stone can be analyzed by a lab in order to determine why it formed.

Sure enough, a couple of days later that damned thing passed, just as the doctor said it would. The chief pilot at my company swears up and down that drinking a Coke helps a stone pass. He said it worked for him. Just to be on the safe side, I did drink one and the stone went the next day. Of course, the ER doctor said it would happen quickly, so who knows.

It was a huge relief, and not just because the pain was gone. As a contract pilot, I am not entitled to any sick pay, paid time off, or other benefits aside from those I purchase on my own dime, and since I obviously wasn’t going to fly with a kidney stone, I was out of work until the situation was resolved.

Honesty is the Best Policy

The FAA allows a pilot to return to the cockpit once the stone is gone, but my episode happened to coincide with the expiration of my first class medical certificate, so I had to start thinking about the hurdles inherent in renewing that important little scrap of paper. It’s just as well because I would have to deal with it sooner or later anyway, and after an hour or two of research I realized that with a bit of forethought and planning, I could get the required tests done and obtain my new first class medical without too much delay.

After a kidney stone episode, the next medical renewal will require a KUB x-ray study to prove you are stone-free, as well as a few simple blood tests and an analysis from a urologist about the possibility of complications or kidney damage. Between the internet, AOPA’s medical specialists, and a good Aviation Medical Examiner, I was able to arrange the required exams and obtain the necessary documentation within a few days.

There’s no doubt that medical certification can be a pain in the rear, even if you’re in perfect health. It’s expensive, time consuming, and there’s plenty of debate about whether it even contributes to flight safety. That’s why there’s a a bill working it’s way through Congress to abolish the 3rd class medical: decades of glider and LSA pilot flying have shown that medical incapacitation is no more likely without medical certification requirements than with it.

This logic can tempt a pilot to omit portions of his or her medical history from their application. Though I’m not a supporter of medical certification for non-commercial aviators, it’s penny wise/pound foolish to do this, especially in an era of computerized databases. It’s easy for omissions to come back and bite you later. The penalties are severe and can include revocation of the pilot certificate itself.

One guy I knew omitted a health issue from his application and the Feds found out about it later by cross-referencing databases from different federal agencies in search of disability fraud. Though he never claimed disability, the omission came to light and caused him a world of headaches. Incidentally, he found the database cross-referencing to be illegal and sued the government. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anyway, a smart aviator will leverage the plethora of available resources to learn the FAA’s requirements and ensure the required data is on hand before going to see the AME. All the tools you need are out there. I know pilots who have had major brain surgery, organ transplants, weird blackout episodes, and more who still managed to get their medical certificates back. Color blind pilots, pilots with no arms, and even those who once took heavy medication for depression have obtained medicals. These days even some diabetics can get a certificate. But you have to know what you’re doing.

Charging into an AME’s office unprepared is asking to have your medical deferred to Oklahoma City, and that lands you in a bureaucratic hell consisting of delays and demands from people you cannot speak to directly and will never meet face-to-face.

The Great Mystery

Even physicians admit that they don’t always know what causes kidney stones. I read that one-quarter of the population will have them at some point in their lives. In my case, I have a theory: I think it has to do with the long-haul charter trips I’m doing these days. Or rather, my behavior on those trips.

I just got back from one where we flew nearly 12 hours (only 10 under Part 135, of course) over an 16+ hour duty day. While I’m well aware that the dry air and high cabin altitude cause dehydration, I never drink anywhere near enough water because I hate having to use the lavatory too often. And when I do drink fluids, on overnight flights it’s often something caffeinated to help keep me alert. Dehydration is a prime culprit for the formation of kidney stones because it allows the minerals being filtered by the kidneys to accumulate in sufficient quantities to crystallize.

Most people don’t drink enough water. I’m trying to be better about it, though. Since the kidney stone passed, a reusable plastic water bottle has been on hand everywhere I go. My brother-in-law had given us a reverse osmosis system for our kitchen, so we finally got that installed. I didn’t realize what a difference it would make in the taste of the water! We used to keep a Brita pitcher on hand, thinking that would remove most of the impurities, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the reverse osmosis process.

Women who have had them say kidney stones are as painful as childbirth. I can’t say with 100% certainty that upping my water intake will keep them at bay forever, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Kidney stones are the pits — literally.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

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For as long as I can remember, “no news” has been “good news” when it comes to rules and regulations in the world of aviation. From field approval policy to sleep apnea to CBP searches and security theatre, any diktat emanating from Washington or Oklahoma City was sure to involve increasing demands of time and money while diminishing the usefulness and enjoyment of general aviation. That was the trend.

What a breath of fresh air it is, then, to hear of a well-suported and coordinated effort in both houses of Congress to enact legislation which would eliminate formal medical certification for many aviators.

Like the House bill, the new Senate legislation would exempt pilots who make noncommercial VFR flights in aircraft weighing up to 6,000 pounds with no more than six seats from the third-class medical certification process. Pilots would be allowed to carry up to five passengers, fly at altitudes below 14,000 feet msl, and fly no faster than 250 knots.

When the bill was first offered in the House of Representatives as the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act, it seemed like a long shot. Congress is not a known for acting boldly to free Americans from the heavy yoke of regulation, so one could be forgiven for not getting their hopes up. But now things are different: there’s a matching bill in the Senate, the House iteration has 52 co-sponsors, and the Congressional General Aviation Caucus has grown to more than 250 members.

Is it a done deal, then? Not at all. There’s no guarantee of passage or that President Obama would even sign the bill into law. But the sponsors and caucus members represent a good mix from across the political spectrum, and there are no special interests of any significance who benefit from the medical certification machinery, so I believe the prospects are encouraging.

This Pilot Protection Act is exceptional for several reasons. First, it goes far beyond even the historically pie-in-the-sky proposal fronted collectively by AOPA and EAA. When was the last time that happened? I can’t recall a single example. Typically we’ll ask for X and end up feeling extraordinary fortunate to get even half of it.

That AOPA/EAA submission, by the way, has languished on the FAA’s desk for two years and has yet to be acted upon by the agency. If one needed proof of just how sclerotic the bureaucratic machine has become, this is it. The delay is egregious enough to have warranted an official apology from FAA Administrator Huerta.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that this is a legislative move rather than a regulatory one. It’s an important distinction, because regulations are instituted with relative impunity by agencies like the FAA, while Congress passes laws that are not nearly as vulnerable to bureaucratic vagaries. In other words, if the FAA instituted the very same change in medical certification through regulatory channels, they could alter or reverse those improvements just as easily. A law, on the other hand, should prove far more durable since the Feds must comply with it whether they like it or not.

It’s a shame that this common-sense change requires a literal Act of Congress. And what does it say about the FAA that a body with 9% approval rating is coming to the rescue of the private pilot? Were it to remain in the FAA’s corner, this medical exemption would probably never see the light of day. I don’t just mean that it would not be approved, I mean it would never even be acted upon at all.

There is a certain schadenfreude which comes from watching the FAA, which is known for soliciting comments from the aviation industry only to ignore that input, suffer the same fate at the hands of the House and Senate. My only question is: what took so long? The last time Congress lent the industry a helping hand was with the General Aviation Revitalization Act. That was in 1994 — twenty years ago. While I’m thankful they’re finally getting off the bench and into the game, this boost is long overdue. I sincerely hope they will not only see it through, but look for other ways to help bring a uniquely American industry back from the brink.

An easing of the medical certification requirements will not fix all of GA’s woes. But if the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, perhaps this will at least get us headed in the right direction.

One final note: if you haven’t called your Representative and Senators to express strong support for H.R. 3708 and S. 2103, respectively, please do so! Unlike FAA employees, these folks are up for re-election in eight months. The closer we get to November, the more likely they are to listen.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2014/03/19/journey/.