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Q&A: Medical Certificate Requirements for Pilots

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Q&A: Medical Certificate Requirements for Pilots
Photo © Sarina Houston

In order to keep everyone safe, the FAA requires a pilot medical certificate from an FAA medical examiner prior to flying solo or earning a pilot certificate. Pilot medical requirements vary depending on what kind of pilot you are.

Who needs a medical certificate?
First, balloon pilots and glider pilots (and students seeking a pilot certificate in a balloon or glider) do not need to have an aviation medical exam done.

Sport pilots and students seeking a sport pilot certificate do not need a medical. As long as the sport pilot or applicant has no known medical conditions that might be a safety hazard, and has not been denied a medical in the past, a U.S. driver's license is all that is needed.

Student pilots working toward a recreational or private pilot license, recreational, private, commercial pilots and airline transport pilots need to have an aviation medical certificate.

How do I get an aviation medical certificate?
You can use the FAA's website to search for a qualified Aviation Medical Examiner in your area.

It's also wise to ask your flight instructor or other pilots at your local airport for a recommendation. If you live in a small town, you may have to travel to the nearest city to find an examiner. Keep in mind that not all medical examiners are certified to conduct first-class medical exams, and you'll want to make sure you get the right one.

Once you've located an examiner and have made certain that the examiner can conduct the type of medical certificate you require, you'll want to inquire about documents or information you should bring with you to your appointment. For example, you may need to wear or bring your contacts or eyeglasses for a vision test.

What kind of medical certificate do I need?
As a student, recreational or private pilot, you'll need at least a third-class medical. For students that plan on making a career out of flying, a first-class medical is often recommended to ensure your health is up to the standards required for commercial and airline transport pilot certificates.

Commercial pilots (that is, any pilot that flies for compensation or hire) need at least a second-class medical certificate.

Airline Transport Pilots (ATPs) must have a first class medical certificate.

How much does it cost?
Aviation Medical Examiners set their own prices for aviation medical exams. The cost is usually similar to a routine physical, but depends on the type of medical exam and your own personal health history. You might expect to pay between $75 and $150 for a third-class medical. First-class medical certificates generally cost $50-100 more, as they are much more extensive than a second- or third-class. Special medical exams (conducted if there are health problems identified, or if a waiver is needed) often have a higher price due to extra tests and procedures, as well as the longer processing time with the FAA.

What happens at the exam?
A third-class medical is the least invasive of the three medicals. It is similar to a sports physical or a yearly check-up. The doctor will most likely ask questions to get a general health history, with a focus on mental and neurological health. Then, you'll probably be given vision and hearing tests. Most doctors will ensure that you can "pop" your ears to relieve pressure- an important detail for pilots.

A second-class medical covers the same items as the third-class, but is slightly more detailed and warrants higher standards for vision.

First-class medical exams cover the same items that the second- class medical does, with stricter standards and an emphasis on cardiovascular function, as well as general medical condition. An EKG is required for a first-class medical, and for older pilots, the doctor may focus more on age-related issues that may interfere with flight duties.

Want more information on the required health standards? Find specific details for each medical type here.

How long is a medical certificate valid for?
Third-class medicals are valid for five years for people under age 40, and two years otherwise.

Second-class medicals are valid for two years for pilots exercising commercial pilot privileges. For others (private or recreational pilot or flight instructor), a second-class medical is valid for 5 years if under age 40, and two years if over age 40. In this case, the second class medical certificate reverts to third class medical privileges after the first two years.

First-class medicals are valid for one year if exercising ATP privileges and under age 40, or six months if exercising ATP privileges over age 40. A first-class medical can be valid for two years for commercial pilots other than ATPs, since the medical certificate privileges revert to second class privileges. Private or recreational pilots and flight instructors with a first-class medical have medical privileges for 5 years if under age 40 and two years if over age 40.

What happens if I fail the exam?
Many Aviation Medical Examiners are pilots themselves, and will want to help you pass the exam. While there are certain medical conditions that prevent people from becoming pilots, the majority of them only require a more extensive exam and a waiver approved by the FAA. If you have a medical condition you think might disqualify you, it's best to research the information ahead of time so that you know what to expect when you show up for the exam. Being denied a medical certificate isn't common, but waivers and extended processing times are.

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