Senator pushing medical exam bill to benefit pilots like him

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Posted: Nov 18, 2015 3:06 PM
Senator pushing medical exam bill to benefit pilots like him

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Jim Inhofe, an 81-year-old avid pilot who had quadruple heart bypass surgery two years ago, is trying to loosen medical exam requirements so that private pilots like him don't have to make so many doctors' visits to show they are fit to fly.

The bill by Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also a pilot, would double the time allowed between exams for pilots over age 40 from two to four years, so long as they also hold a valid driver's license. Instead of a government-certified medical examiner, pilots could see any doctor they like. There would be no standards for what the medical exam would entail, and the doctor would no longer have to certify to the Federal Aviation Administration that the pilot was healthy enough to fly.

Under the bill, pilots would effectively certify themselves and make a notation of their last doctor visit on hand should an FAA inspector request the information.

The bill would narrow the number of medical conditions for which a doctor's certification of fitness is required, and eliminate the normal waiting period after heart procedures like Inhofe's bypass before a pilot can fly again.

The bill does introduce a requirement for pilots to take an online course to familiarize themselves with aeromedical information every two years.

Although there are about 6,000 FAA-certified medical examiners nationally, Manchin said he and other pilots often have a hard time finding one when it comes time to renew their medical certificates.

Ten years ago, the FAA eliminated the requirement for a medical certificate from a government-approved examiner for pilots who fly a special category of lightweight planes typically built from kits. Inhofe and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association say that since then there's been no greater increase in health-related crashes and fatalities for those "sport plane" pilots than for other pilots.

"This is something we now have demonstrated clearly is not going to incur any safety hazards, and it is going to be a real godsend for pilots who don't want to go through this bureaucracy every two years, or more frequently in some cases," Inhofe said in a speech to the Senate in September.

But the National Transportation Safety Board says crash investigations in which pilots were killed show pilots without medical certificates are more likely than pilots with a certificate to have used potentially impairing drugs, drugs that are used to treat dangerous medical conditions and controlled substances.

NTSB Chairman Chris Hart cited the death of a sport plane pilot near the central Texas town of Groesbeck in 2012. The pilot, Darrell G. Sorensen, 69, was attempting to land on a private landing strip when the plane suddenly took a hard left and crashed into woods. He had no medical certificate.

An investigation revealed that Sorenson was being treated for hypertension, high cholesterol, a bladder obstruction, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, ADHD, insomnia and restless leg syndrome. Toxicology tests identified seven different medications in his bloodstream, including two considered to be sedating, one known to cause patients to fall asleep without warning and three controlled substances.

Investigators concluded that Sorenson's physical and psychological problems contributed to his loss of control of the plane.

Had he discussed his health problems with an approved medical examiner, "there would have been an opportunity to address the safety issues that his conditions and medications presented, and the crash might have been avoided," Hart said in a letter to lawmakers earlier this year.

The Inhofe-Manchin bill has 69 co-sponsors. A companion bill in the House by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., has 151 co-sponsors.

Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for Inhofe, said the bill has widespread support among pilot organizations and is "in no way motivated for personal gain."

The Senate Commerce Committee had scheduled a vote on the bill for Wednesday, but it was put off because there weren't enough senators present for a vote under committee rules. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the senior Democrat on the committee, urged senators to reject the bill, saying the measure would undermine safety.

Jonathan Kott, a spokesman for Manchin, told The Associated Press that Manchin and Inhofe planned to try to add the pilots bill to a larger, surface transportation bill that has cleared both the House and Senate, but he called back later to say those plans had been dropped. The transportation bill is expected to clear Congress and be sent to the White House by Dec. 4. Inhofe is the Senate's top GOP negotiator on the transportation bill, while Graves is a House negotiator.

This is Inhofe's second "pilots rights" bill. In 2011, the senator ran afoul of the FAA when he landed a plane on a closed runway at a rural South Texas airport even though there was a giant yellow X and trucks on the runway. Workers on the ground scrambled to get out of the way. The FAA told him he had to take remedial piloting lessons before he could fly again. But Inhofe had the last word. He persuaded Congress the following year to pass a bill giving pilots more rights when dealing with FAA disciplinary hearings.

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This version corrects how often the bill would require pilots to take an online course. The requirement to review aeromedical information is every two years, not annually.