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Medical Matters

Christoph Weber is an ultra-active outdoorsman and high-calibre all-season athlete. He also happens to be a pilot, doctor, and designated Transport Canada Civil Aviation Medical Examiner. Like others in his sector of the medical profession, he has the authority to let you fly, or to ground you. The latter response may seem unkind, but to chat with such as Dr. Weber is to be positively enlightened as to the prevalent reasons for the professional recommendations such doctors make.

Good physical, and sound mental, health are every pilot’s passport to flying an aircraft. Lose them, and you lose your right to fly. Nobody wants to get sick, yet pilots may have a greater interest than most in ensuring medical factors don’t scratch their cravings to be airborne. If the focus of your life is to remain skyward bound, here are a few things to think about to placate the demons of ill-health.

Factors that may lead to the non-renewal of a pilot’s medical certificate generally fall into three broad categories: (1) lifestyle, (2) heredity, and (3) aging. If hit by a medical condition that may compromise your ability to fly, the ailment will be either (1) reversible, or (2) irreversible. The good news seems to be that most afflictions fall into the former group. The bad news is, you might have to make major changes in your life to get your licence back.

According to Dr. James Pfaff, head of Civil Aviation Medicine for Ontario, an average of 120 to 150 pilots lose, either temporarily or permanently, their medicals each year in that province alone. The specific reasons for which these medical revocations may arise are concentrated into (1) cardiac, (2) psychiatric, and (3) neurological areas. While an algorithm exists that examiners use to assess the conditions of the pilots they see, any examination wherein a red flag may be raised will initiate a deeper look into the risk factors associated to the particular case at hand. “We don’t want to ground pilots unnecessarily,” says Dr. Pfaff. “So, every case is looked at in such a way as to determine what is in the pilot’s, and public’s, best interests.”

As you would expect, risk of heart attack ranks high on the list of concerns in medical examinations. Lifestyle, genes, and aging all may play their part in this condition, but whatever the causal relationship, extensive testing and re-evaluation will pursue any pilot exhibiting symptoms of developing coronary artery disease. Medical examiners look for the obvious signs: obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and family history. If any of these are working against you, you’ll generate a closer medical inspection.

Not so easily spotted in examinations, mental illness of any distillation – depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, etc. – will warrant the suspension of a medical as the condition itself, or the medication to control it, can affect the chemistry of the brain, alter cognitive functioning, and reduce psychomotor skills thus rendering cockpit performance a hazardous chore.

Neurological disorders – strokes, epilepsy, and seizures – invariably keep pilots on the ground, or severely restrict their freedom to fly. A growing frequency of type II diabetics, the consequence of poor diet and an indolent lifestyle, threatens to spill into the pilot population, as much as it pours into the general population as a whole. Controllable though it may be, a significant change in lifestyle can, to some degree, mitigate against the consequences of this ailment.

Some types of cancers – skin melanoma, for instance – warrant less concern to medical examiners. The greater threats are cancers that can spread to vital organs, or creep to the brain and trigger undetectable brain seizures. There’s not much for a pilot to do except to endure a cycle of treatments from which they might, eventually, have their flying privileges restored.

In the experience of Dr. Weber, heart disease, diabetes, and deteriorating vision clip the wings of the pilots he sees. Heredity and the inevitable consequences of aging play their roles; however, lifestyles – lack of activity, high sugar intake, poor diet, etc. – have a grip on medical declinations. One need not train to elite standards to be a pilot, but to follow the manner of living as exemplified by the likes of Dr. Weber may ensure that one’s life in the sky is healthy and uninterrupted.

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