Medically Speaking

The primary privilege of holding a pilot’s certificate is the ability to act as Pilot in Command of an aircraft, but that certificate is useless without a current medical certificate to go along with it. Plus, the complications surrounding medical certificates aren’t always medical…

To act as the Pilot in Command, a pilot must:

  1. hold a current FAA medical certificate;
  2. hold a rating for the aircraft to be flown;
  3. must have completed a Flight Review or passed a checkride within the past 24 months; and
  4. accomplished three takeoffs and landings within the last 90 days, in the aircraft, if passengers are to be flown.

The FAA Medical Certificate seems to be the most straightforward on the list, but there are special medical certificate rules that all pilots should be aware of.

When you first begin flight lessons, you are advised by your instructor to acquire the FAA Medical Certificate because it is a requirement for solo flight. You then find out which physicians in your area are FAA Airman’s Medical Examiners and you schedule the appointment to get your certificate. When you arrive at the doctor’s office you are actually applying for two certificates in one. When you pass the examination the physician will give you a yellow card. This yellow card is both a Medical Certificate and your Student Pilot’s Certificate. Technically, the front of the card is the medical and the back is the pilot certificate. The back of the card has several places for your instructor to sign when its time for you to fly solo and solo cross country.

The front of the card is the medical certificate and can either be First, Second, or Third Class. Any of the three classes can be combined with the student certificate. The ‘class’ of certificate is determined by the exam’s level of tolerance. A First Class medical has tougher tolerances than a Second Class, and so forth. Also the length of time the medical certificate can be used to exercise privileges of the pilot certificate varies with the class of medical certificate. A Second Class medical, for instance, can be used by a Commercial Pilot to perform commercial pilot operations for 12 months. After 12 months, however, the medical is still good for non-commercial pilot operations.

Inside Information: Sometimes you hear pilots say that their medical has been ‘down-graded’ from a Second to a Third Class after 12 months – but this is not technically accurate. Once a person meets the tolerances of a Second Class certificate it always remains a Second Class certificate – what changes in 12 months is the ability to exercise privileges of a Second Class. To act as Pilot in Command, any medical will do, so the Second Class medical can still be used to act as PIC after 12 months.

The Third Class certificate is good for 36 months — if you are younger than age 40. If you are 40 or older, then a Third Class is good from only 24 months.

Trap: If you go to the doctor and get a combination Student Pilot Certificate and a Third Class Medical, and you are younger than 40, then the front of the card (the medical certificate) is good for 36 months. BUT the back of the card (the student certificate) is only good for 24 months! If you forget that the yellow card is actually two certificates in one and that each certificate has a different expiration date, you could be flying solo someday without knowing that you were flying illegally.

What should you do if the student certificate expires while the medical is still good? Must you go back to the doctor? No.

You can get another Student Pilot Certificate issued to you by filling out an Airman’s Application for Certificate or Rating (FAA Form 8710-1) and check the box for ‘Student.’ Give the form to an inspector or examiner and they will give you a Student Pilot only card. From then on you would have to carry your original yellow card, (because) the medical part of that card is still in force and your new Student only card.

Are CFIs always required to have a medical certificate? No.

To first become a CFI, a person must have a medical certificate, because they must act as PIC on their checkride, but following the checkride a CFI can still give instruction even if they lose their medical — with one important stipulation. If the CFI does not have a medical (and therefore cannot act as PIC), then the person receiving the instruction must become the PIC. But that means that the person receiving the instruction must qualify to be the PIC. In this case, a CFI could not teach a Student Pilot unless the CFI has a medical, because the CFI in this case must be both Instructor and PIC. The CFI must be both since the Student is not yet rated in the aircraft. But, if a CFI were teaching a current Private Pilot about commercial maneuvers, the CFI would not be required to have a medical himself. On that flight, the Private Pilot would be the PIC and the CFI would be the instructor only.

Could the CFI charge a fee for this flight? Yes!

The CFI would charge the PIC for ‘Instructor Services’ but not ‘Pilot Services’ because the CFI was not the pilot. I have a friend who is a world renowned aerobatics instructor. He gets between $300 and $400 per instruction hour — but he does not hold a medical certificate. He can never fly by himself, because without the medical he does not qualify to act as PIC, but he flies everyday and his waiting list is six months long. Before each flight he has the person who will be receiving the instruction (and simultaneously acting as PIC) sign a statement making it clear that they are the PIC of the flight and he is only the instructor.

A CFI must act as both the instructor and the PIC, when teaching student pilots. A Third Class medical is all that is required to act as PIC. So, an instructor need only have the Third Class medical — however, most CFIs maintain at least a Second Class certificate so that if and when any flights come up that require ‘commercial operations’ they would be qualified to be paid for ‘pilot services.’

BOTTOM LINE: Keeping the medical and pilot certificate regulations straight can be a real challenge. Items that have expiration dates include your Medical Certificate, Flight Review, 90-day landings, Student Certificate, Knowledge Test Report, instrument currency, and Instructor Certificate. Mark your calendar and stay up to date!