Just as a pilot’s plane needs maintenance for safety, the pilot himself needs regular checkups for his own health—especially when it comes to heart health.
With the help of their cardiologists, many pilots can keep their hearts strong and continue to fly.
Federal Aviation Administration-authorized aviation medical examiners evaluate pilots and issue medical certificates for them. The FAA has strict rules about heart conditions and pilots.
For medical certification, the FAA sometimes requires a cardiovascular evaluation with a treadmill stress test, echocardiograms and 24-hour Holter monitoring.
Sometimes these FAA exams uncover heart conditions. In fact, cardiovascular problems are among the most common causes for delays in or denials of certification.
But there are proven treatments for many of these conditions. After treatment, a pilot can often get or renew his or her pilot’s license.
Thomas Callahan, MD, Director of Inpatient Services in the Section of Pacing and Electrophysiology at Cleveland Clinic, says that heart conditions are of special concern to all pilots.
“For a pilot, this can mean one of their greatest passions or perhaps even their livelihood is in jeopardy. As a private pilot myself and growing up with my father, a professional pilot, I understand many of the concerns other pilots have when it comes to these medical issues,” he says.
As they would for any other patient, doctors work with pilots to diagnose their heart problems and find the best treatments for their specific situation.
Some heart conditions need no further tests. Others require treatment.
Pilots with these conditions may receive a conditional license that will require more frequent testing and elaborate monitoring. But usually they are cleared for takeoff.
There are some cardiovascular conditions that require additional testing and/or recovery time prior to receiving approval to fly:
These pilots require specific testing to insure they have recovered fully and able to fly safely. In some cases ongoing monitoring is required, but they do not necessarily prevent issuance of an Airman’s medical certificate
Cardiovascular conditions that lead to the denial of a health certificate and a pilot’s license are considered too risky for medical certification and include:
Recent policy changes have eased the follow-up requirements for some conditions and reflect the most recent advances in cardiac care. Certification after diagnosis and treatment is based on submission of complete records and periodic cardiovascular re-evaluation.
“One of my favorite facets of my practice is treating pilots and, whenever I can, helping to keep them flying safely,” Dr. Callahan says.
Luckily for professional pilots, only a few cardiac conditions affecting a minority of pilots lead to permanent disqualification.