Truth and the FAA: Scarier Than Your First Checkride (Part 1)

Friends — fellow pilots with more experience — told me I was nuts … crazy … out of my cotton pickin’ mind to voluntarily admit a medical problem to the FAA. The rueful looks on their faces revealed a fear and mistrust of the agency. One put it this way: “If you wanta fly, you gotta lie.”

Last spring, on an out of town job, I drove into a hotel parking lot. At that moment, just beneath my right eye, what felt like a welder’s torch lit up inside my nose. Two Excedrin put out the flame, but that night a monster headache blew up in my head the way a hot ember ignites a forest fire. I sought out over the counter medications, ice packs — anything I could legally get my hands on, but nothing worked. Back home, the headaches got worse…

The pain was so intense the family doctor thought it must be a migraine, but the prescribed medicines did nothing. So my doctor called a neurologist for advice, who thought the symptoms sounded like cluster headaches — frequent, intense, headache attacks ‘clustered’ together. The doctor prescribed a drug called “Sansert” and the headaches vanished.

I was cured! …or so it seemed.

BUT, headache patients can’t take Sansert for more than a few months (because it does bad things to inner organs) and, without the drug, the welder’s torch fired up again. I made an appointment with a neurologist.

This would be bad enough if the headaches were the only concern, but I’d had my private ticket for just over a year and the medical certificate I’d attained earlier was due to expire. It was time to renew. FAA regulations require disclosure of just about any medical condition and the first box on the medical certificate renewal form asks about frequent or severe headaches. Should I lie and risk being caught and punished? Or, should I be honest and risk being denied a medical certificate? I might never fly PIC, again!

What’s scarier than your first check-ride? For me, it’s just one question: Whether or not to voluntarily reveal a medical problem to the FAA. The more pilots I asked, the more they urged me to keep quiet. In the end, that may have been a stroke of luck — because, in the end, I needed an answer I could live with. Without any real help from my friends, I was forced to do a lot of soul searching. Here’s what I learned…

I’m a newbie flyboy. I take flying seriously. I want to be good at it. When I fly, I feel the same excitement as I did when I was 17-years old and polishing the chrome wheels on my fire-red 1965 Formula “S” Plymouth Barracuda. A bug-eyed beginner, I devour books and magazines dedicated to flying. I plan to fly in the clouds and make perfect wheel landings in my flying club’s Citabria. I’d like to fly the bush in Alaska someday. I want to do everything right. I want to pick up more ratings and grow as a pilot. Where I come from, that means following the rules.

But more important: Where I come from, good pilots — and good men — are honest, and I know what kind of man I am and what kind of pilot I want to be.

Editor’s Note: Watch for future installments about Mark’s decision, here in the Insider Series.