Please see the disclaimer.
Assumed Audience: Anyone who likes aviation and doesn’t mind reading therapy for a rando on the Internet.
Epistemic Status: Confident.
It was September 9. I was out with some fence builders in my yard, and I received a call I’ve expected for eight months.
It was from my Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), the doctor responsible for helping me receive a medical clearance from the FAA to be pilot, if possible.
I started this journey in August 2020 when I was fired from my job. In fact, I said,
I am switching industries. I don’t know what I will do yet, but I am leaning towards something that requires professionalism, like emergency services, engineering, surveying, or commercial aviation.
I didn’t add commercial aviation on a whim; I’ve always wanted to be a pilot, near as long as I can remember.
I grew up in the country, and my parents’ house was surrounded by crop fields. Those crops needed spraying, which in Eastern Idaho, is done by crop dusters.
And the crop duster I saw was a freakishly good pilot.
There was one road that had a set of trees and a canal on one side and a set of powerlines on the other side. He would dive over the trees and under the powerline when necessary.
Don’t try that at home. Seriously.
That same prowess meant that he could fly 50-100 feet (or whatever was legal) directly above our house, which meant I always got a good look at him flying.
I fell in love, and I wanted to be a pilot too.
And then I joined Civil Air Patrol. I learned more about aviation, spent time on the flight line, and loved it all. I loved the noise, the smell, the work, and the professionalism of the pilots and ground crew.
Well, being a fighter pilot fell through, and lack of confidence meant that I did not try to become a regular pilot through the FAA.
But when I lost my job, it was enough of a jolt for me to try. I decided to go into helicopters.
The fixed-wing industry was struggling at the time because of COVID, and it just appeared more volatile than I would like. Rotor-wing appeared less volatile.
The first step was to get a medical clearance, aka a “medical.”
This was easier said than done. My history is…not good.
I do have the regular things in my history, things that are not problems. I am color deficient (the reason I could not become a fighter pilot), and I barely passed the FALANT after failing all others.
None of those required approval from the FAA, but two things did: a history of cancer and a history of depression and anxiety.
The FAA is careful with cancer, but they mostly focus on monitoring rather than denying medicals because of it.
That wasn’t a problem as long as I kept up my check-ups.
Trust me, once you have cancer, you do not miss a check-up.
But depression and anxiety are much different. The FAA is extremely careful with those.
And rightly so; there have been several high-profile incidents of suicide-by-pilot including:
- Royal Air Muroc Flight 630,
- 2010 Austin Suicide Attack (someone on the ground died too),
- LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470,
- Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (possibly), and
- Germanwings Flight 9525.
Look through that list. It’s long, much longer than it should be.
This is the reason the FAA is so paranoid about mental health. It’s an excellent reason.
So it should go without saying, but I am not mad at the FAA. In fact, I think they made the right decision, even though I believe I would be safe as a pilot.
Let me explain.
The FAA has a mission, and that mission is two-fold:
- Keep the airspace above the United States safe.
- Facilitate commercial and general aviation.
There might be more, but those are the two that matter for this post.
The order of those two matter: safety comes first. Always.
This has a few consequences.
First, if there are no problems, the FAA will automatically approve medicals. In fact, AME’s have the authority to issue medicals to pilots and pilot candidates with no problems, or only certain non-critical problems.
So to facilitate aviation, AME’s always issue medicals to pilots without certain problems.
But for safety’s sake, to keep US airspace safe, the FAA must manually approve certain cases.
Now, when the FAA receives one of them, they’ll look at whether they think the pilot proved that they would be safe in the air. If the proof is good enough, the FAA will always issue a medical.
The FAA does not have to do this, by the way, but they do this because the FAA is the best of the US Government agencies and because they want to facilitate aviation. There’s a pilot shortage right now, so the FAA wants to allow as many pilots as possible.
But when the FAA thinks the proof is not good enough, they have a choice:
- Approve the pilot and facilitate aviation, or
- Deny the pilot and ensure the airspace is safe.
When the choice is put like that, it seems that there is only one way to go: deny.
This is why I think the FAA made the right decision: they defaulted to following their most important directive.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t think I would be a safe pilot; on the contrary, I think I would have been one of the safest.
Bear with me here; I’m trying to exercise my confidence.
When I first applied to the FAA, they denied me almost by default. This was fine because they gave me a chance to appeal the decision. Obviously, the appeal would require jumping through some hoops, and I was glad to do so.
I had to meet with a therapist. I had to be evaluated by a neuro-psychologist and a psychiatrist. And I had to learn how to fly helicopters, but only so far.
I got about 15 flight hours, enough to learn hovering and emergencies.
All of those people, including my flight instructors, had to submit reports to the FAA about me. And then the FAA would take it from there.
But I didn’t leave anything to chance. I took that opportunity as a gift; I did not know if I would never fly again. So I put my heart and soul into it.
But most importantly, I put my mind into it.
I knew that my biggest weakness is my mental illness history, and I was determined to compensate for it.
So I learned about the psychology of flying.
It’s actually fascinating. There’s a lot to it, such as task saturation; the mechanical Aeronautical Decision-Making process; “aviate, navigate, communicate”; and most importantly, avoiding the mission mindset.
I read a lot of accident reports (and watched YouTube videos about plenty more). I paid attention to anything that might have pointed to some mental weakness or deficiency in the pilot(s) involved, and in my next flights, I would attempt to apply those lessons.
I did this a lot during my time in flight school. I had two flight instructors, and there was once with each of them that I felt they were not being fair to me. I calmly talked it out with them.
They weren’t trying to be unfair and apologized, and I did the same; it was just miscommunication.
And I did that before climbing into the aircraft; I did not climb in until both of us felt good and ready to fly.
There was even one day when I grounded myself because I was dealing with outside issues that I felt would affect my focus.
And that was the key: focus.
Near the end of my time in flight school, I asked to talk to the chief instructor of the school, and he accepted. I had one question: how do I know when to ground myself?
I learned a lot more than that during the conversation, but the most important part was his answer to that question.
The answer was focus.
If I ever felt my focus slip, even a little, during pre-flight, I should ground myself. Of course, if my focus slips because of hunger, I should eat, and then recheck myself. If I am thirsty, drink and recheck.
But if my focus slips because of mental distractions, I should ground myself immediately. And I did.
This is why I believe I would be a safe pilot: I had the knowledge and the fortitude to ground myself when I was not safe.
Just because there would be days when I was not safe doesn’t mean I was not safe. Even pilots without problems have bad days when they should not fly.
That’s why it’s possible that the FAA was right at the same time that I was safe.
I loved my time in flight school. I loved the work, even the preflight work.
I’ve always loved machines, and I love math. I love science and the weather.
So when checking the weather, I was doing something I was interested in. When doing the preflight inspection, I was enjoying my time with a machine. And when checking weight and balance, I was doing math.
I even wrote a program to calculate weight and balance for me, and I always used it. But I also always calculated the numbers by hand and made sure they matched.
Redundance is a wonderful thing.
Oh, and the program needs my
bc to run. Make sure you put your home
airport elevation in the
I loved it all, even if I was itching to fly.
Everything was submitted by early January. The FAA must be swamped because the answer didn’t come until September 9.
And the answer was a firm NO.
I guess I didn’t have solid enough proof for them.
My AME (who is fantastic, by the way) did tell me that there is one way I will be able to appeal if I do something specific that the FAA wants. She said that their extensive experience (and I have no doubt that it’s more than just extensive) says that it is better for the safety of US airspace if I do what they want me to.
This time, however, I can’t. The hoops I jumped through last time did not affect my wife too much. The hoops they want me to jump through now, and they have good reason for wanting me to jump through these hoops, would affect my wife too much.
It only makes sense to back out; my wife and I were not even sure we could afford flight school. My wife is enjoying her career and advancing in it, so why should I go to flight school and interrupt her hard-won progress?
Don’t get me wrong; I want to fly, but I want to be married more.
So that news was devastating. Nevertheless, I told my AME right away that I could not comply with the FAA and that I accepted the dreaded result.
I am grounded for life.
Barring some miracle, of course.
I have joined an exclusive club of people who have been medically grounded by the FAA, a club I never wanted to be a part of.
But here I am, and I’m feeling sad.
How could I not feel sad? Learning to fly a helicopter was one of the few things I could actually do.
I mentioned my lack of confidence. Well, flying a helicopter has boosted my confidence.
After all, I often feel like I have no talent or ability to do anything but programming, and my 15 flight hours proved that I could do something that most people never even try, a difficult thing that requires a solid head, steady hands, and skill that I thought I could only dream of.
But it was real, and it was me. I was the one flying the helicopter, and I could do it all.
Even when doing emergencies, I was good!
In vortex ring state, I was calm and collected. And I recovered my first one in only 75 feet.
I did not like autorotations; they require a sudden drop, and my stomach screams. But despite that, with practice, my flight instructors and I managed to train my reaction to be the correct, but counterintuitive one: drop the helicopter as fast as possible.
This created my greatest triumph in a helicopter.
My flight instructor said, “Engine failure,” and I dropped the collective before I realized what was happening, despite the sickening drop that followed.
I had literally trained my body to do what it hated!
And my flight instructors were key to this; they were great teachers, professional, and excellent pilots.
Most of all, they were encouraging, and when I left, it was with great reluctance and a sense that I would probably not come back again.
But flight school had a side effect: I grew to love aviation more. I felt more alive in flight school than I had in a long time.
I had physical work to keep my mind out of depression; I had flight to keep me happy; and I had education and skill to boost my confidence.
Nevertheless, all good things come to an end.
The New Dream
All of this makes it so much harder to let go of this dream.
But I must.
I don’t know how to do that except to replace the dream with another.
The only one great enough to consider is Zion.
So as I let go of flight, I will grab tightly onto Zion. I will pour more of my effort into making it happen.
I don’t know what I can do except to learn what it takes to make Zion and to help others learn as well. So starting soon, I will create a series of blog posts, short stories to illustrate what Zion is and how to build it.
I hope that will be good enough.
If you want to fly and have a history of mental illness, get in touch with me; I know an excellent AME and an incredible psychiatrist that can help you.
And as hard as it is that the FAA grounded me for life, I am grateful to them for graciously granting me 15 of the best hours of my life.