To become a pilot, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires an aviation medical certificate from an FAA aviation medical examiner. With the exception of a Sport Pilot certificate, all student pilots must obtain a medical certification prior to flying solo or earning a pilot certificate. Pilot medical requirements vary depending on your age and what type of pilot certificate you're applying for.
Who Does and Does Not Need a Medical Certificate?
Student pilots working toward a recreational or private pilot license, and recreational, private, commercial, and airline transport pilots do need to obtain an aviation medical certificate.
Balloon pilots and glider pilots (and students seeking a pilot certificate in a balloon or glider) do not need to have an aviation medical certificate to exercise their privileges.
Sport pilots and students seeking a sport pilot certificate do not need a medical certificate either. As long as the sport pilot applicant has no known medical conditions that might be a safety hazard, and has not denied a medical in the past, a U.S. driver's license is all that is required.
How Do I Get an Aviation Medical Certificate?
Use the FAA's website to search for a qualified Aviation Medical Examiner in your area and make an appointment.
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 if you do, indeed, need a first-class medical certificate.
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 bring your eyeglasses or wear contacts 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 before you invest time and money into making flying a career.
Commercial pilots, that is, any pilot who flies for compensation or hire—not airline pilots—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 (AMEs) set their prices for aviation medical exams. The cost is usually similar to a routine physical but depends on the type of medical exam and your personal health history. You might expect to pay between $75 and $150 for a third-class medical. First-class medical certificates generally cost $50 to $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 During 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 electrocardiogram (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.
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 five 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 five 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 then you'll have to do some paperwork before you receive a "special issuance medical certificate" from 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.