Take Your Medicine and STAY DOWN

Well, it’s cold, flu, and who-knows-what-hellish-other-kinds-of-sickness weather season again and that means it’s time for a quick review of the “dos and don’ts” of flying while medicated. Oh no! Not another story about FAA regulations! Oh, yes…


  • FAR 61.53 basically prohibits a pilot from acting as a member of an aircrew if they are taking medication or receiving treatments that results in the person being unable to meet the requirements for the medical certificate necessary for the pilot operation.
  • FAR 91.17(a), states that no person may act, or attempt to act, as a pilot crewmember of a civil aircraft while using any drug that affects that person’s faculties in any way contrary to safety.

Apart from the open ended language you see above, if you are taking any medicine — whether it is FAA approved as cleared by your AME or on a database list, or not — you need to honestly assess how the medicine affects your behaviors. Example: Many common, over the counter decongestants contain a drug called pseudoephedrine. It sounds harmless, and it works to constrict blood vessels, to clear swelling and sinus congestion. Constricting blood vessels is just what adrenaline does – and pseudoephedrine is just that — a close cousin to adrenaline. The effects of pseudoephedrine can make you jumpy and unpredictable… which is not exactly how you would really like to be in the cockpit!

Feeling Excitable? The problem with medicines is they don’t affect everyone equally or in the same way. While some drugs might work great on your coworker, they may be a real burden on you. However, both of the FARs that are listed above fall to YOU to enforce. That means YOU have to assess whether you are fit to fly and, given the stakes, you had better be 100% certain of that assessment before your wheels leave the ground.

Perhaps A Bit Drowsy? The other problem with medicines is that they usually depend on a normal supply of oxygen. Taking your high performance single up to 9,000 feet while on the wrong stuff could cause you to black out due to hypoxia. If you were flying without the medication, the flight would have gone by without a bother.

Adding a medication changes the equation and, unfortunately for you, that means all your experience and bets are OFF.

I ran into a pilot the other day who stated he thought if he could buy medicine over the counter, then it must be okay to use when he is flying. I took him aside, and pointed out the fine print on the package: Do not use while working with machinery. An airplane is a machine… and a darn complicated machine at times. You need to be at your best level of performance to handle what life can throw at you in the air. Never forget it!

THE DATABASES… as a starting point — Organizations such as AOPA have an extensive database of medications that are approved for use by the FAA, along with some important restrictions on some specific types. This information is available in the AOPA Members Only Section, so if you aren’t a member, you’ll need to join.

Insider’s Opinion: I’ve found that, as a pilot, my AOPA membership is worth 10 times the cost. If you haven’t already, consider joining. You can call AOPA at 800-USA-AOPA and ask about what they offer. I don’t get money for saying that… it’s just a good idea.

CALL YOUR AME… and discuss your plans — He/she may have more information or suggestions to offer, or may recommend you come in for a visit. In any case, when you consider the consequences of what can happen if something unexpected happens while you are flying, the more trained advice you can get the better off you’ll be.

I know how strong the urge is to fly when the weather is nice, even though your sinuses are clogged and you have a headache the size of the IRS. Truth be told, the fresh air might do you some good, but if you really need to get up and fly, use your head and go as the passenger of a friend.

BOTTOM LINE: When you are under medication, it is not the right time to go for a quick spin on your own! If you do elect to fly in the face of uncertainty — and take that solo trip without being at your best — the results may be just that… or they might be worse. If you really need to get there, have someone else drive.