You’ve taken your discovery flight and decided you’d like to learn to fly. Whether you’d like to become a private pilot or an airline pilot, the next step is getting your medical certificate. The examination at the core of this process helps ensure that you can safely operate an airplane at the level that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires for the license you're seeking.
There are three different medical certificates you can obtain: first, second, or third class.
- First-class medical privileges are required for those operating as an airline transport pilot (ATP) and are the most challenging to obtain.
- Second-class medical privileges are required for those operating for hire as commercial pilots.
- Third-class medical privileges are required for those operating as private pilots, recreational pilots, and student pilots (who are flying solo).
Getting a medical certificate before you begin flight school ensures that there are no underlying medical conditions or complications that will prevent you from being able to safely and legally operate an airplane. Even if your goal is to get a private pilot certificate or a commercial pilot certificate, it’s still a good idea to pursue a first-class medical in case you aspire to become an ATP in the future. That way, you know that your medical will not prevent you from achieving your goals.
Applying for Your Aviation Medical Certificate
In this day and age, applying for your medical certificate is quite easy. The first step is to fill out the FAA's MedXpress questionnaire. The questionnaire requires various information, including your name, address, current medications, and other general health questions similar to those asked at a doctor’s office. Be sure to write down the code that is provided at the end of the questionnaire—or snap a picture of it—as you’ll need it when you visit the doctor’s office.
After that, you’ll need to find an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) who will administer the exam and, hopefully, the certificate. With this simple tool from the FAA, you can add your location information to see a list of examiners in your area. With that information in hand, a quick Google search will give you the doctor’s contact information and, if you’re lucky, a website. After a quick call or click, you'll have an appointment on your calendar.
Getting Your Medical Exam
Once the day of your medical exam arrives, do your best to go about your normal routine, but consider skipping your morning coffee or energy drink. These types of stimulants can yield erroneous readings during your exam and make for potentially unnecessary questions or setbacks.
As you depart for your exam, be sure to bring these items with you:
- Any pertinent medical records or prescriptions
- Your glasses or contacts (if worn)
- Your photo ID
The exam will consist of a urine test, blood pressure test, eye exam, ear exam, measurements, and other general medical tests. For healthy individuals with no underlying conditions, you will have a quick chat with the examiner and be on your way. For those with previous conditions, your chat with the examiner may be a bit longer to allow him/her to make an educated decision on your medical certificate.
If you meet the requirements, the doctor will type up your certificate. Before he/she prints it for you, be sure that the information on it matches your government-issued photo ID exactly. Otherwise, you could have unneeded stress during your first check ride. Many Designated Pilot Examiners find inconsistencies in their applicants’ paperwork, which can get a check ride off to a rocky start.
If you can’t get a first-class medical
Don’t be distraught. You may still be able to obtain a medical certificate. For example, to obtain a first-class medical, the exam requires applicants to have distant visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye separately, with or without corrective lenses. If you do not meet that standard, you may be eligible for a third-class medical, for which the requirements are 20/40 or better in each eye separately, with or without corrective lenses.
Any of the three medical certificates will allow you to train and fly solo as a private pilot, and you can always try to meet the requirements for a different class of certificate later as needed.
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Once You Have Your Medical Certificate
You always will need your medical in your possession while you are flying. Depending on the type of certificate you obtain, your medical will last anywhere from six calendar months to sixty calendar months. Either way, you can begin your flight training and pursue your student pilot certificate without the stress of being medically unfit to fly.
Throughout the process of getting your medical certificate, be honest, prepared, and calm. Many AMEs are pilots who love to discuss their experiences, both through the lens of a pilot and a doctor. You may even learn a bit about your aviation adventure before it begins!
For more information about pilot medical certification, check out the FAA's FAQ page.
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