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Grounded at Lock Haven
copyright 2009 by H. Paul Shuch, All Rights Reserved

"New York Center," I intoned into the unkeyed mic, "Beech Sierra November Six Six Tango X-ray, filed IFR Lock Haven to Teterboro. I'm holding short of runway two seven at Lock Haven, ready to depart, request clearance."

"Six Six Tango X-ray," I answered myself, "New York Center. You're cleared to the Teterboro airport via: depart runway two seven, direct Swiss Intersection, radar vectors Foxtrot Quebec Mike, as filed. Climb and maintain four thousand, expect six thousand one-zero minutes after departure, squawk four five seven two. You're released at one six one five zulu; clearance void if not airborne by one six two five. Time is now one six zero two. Cleared to leave center frequency; report back this frequency when airborne."

I read back to myself inside the closed hangar, and rogered myself, and set to work entering waypoints into the Garmin 430W.

"Whatever do you think you're doing?" asked a familiar voice, as the ghost of Avalon Eden, my first and favorite flight instructor, materialized in the seat next to me.

"Maintaining instrument proficiency, that's what" I replied with a smile. "Avalon, am I ever glad to see you! Why didn't you come visit me in the hospital?"

"Where have we been every time I dropped in on you these past thirty years?" she asked, always one to answer a question with another question, in good Socratic fashion.

"Right here in Son-of-a-Beech," I answered. "Wait a minute - does that mean..."

"Bingo," Avalon exclaimed. "It's the only place I'm allowed to visit you. Don't blame me; I don't make the rules."

I've always wondered who does make the rules. But as usual, I was afraid to ask. Instead, I speculated: "I guess if I hadn't come out to the airport, you wouldn't have visited me at all."

"If you hadn't decided to fly again, you wouldn't have wanted me around," she responded, and I saw the logic of that. Where else was a flight instructor likely to be needed?

"Well, I'm sure glad to see you making vroom-vroom sounds," purred Avalon. "Why don't you just take this crate out of the hangar and go burn some avgas?"

"Can't. Since my open-heart surgery, I don't really have a medical anymore."

"Then why bother to keep current? Do you really expect to get back in the air?"

"I damned sure hope so!" I replied emphatically. "At six months post-op, I get to do a stress echocardiogram, and start the paperwork for a Special Issuance third-class medical. The FAA flight surgeons in Oke City will probably take a couple of months scrutinizing the paperwork, but my cardiologist has already said it should be no problem, given how quickly I'm recuperating. Only - dammit, Avalon, I just don't know..."

"Yes, it's risky to try," she agreed. "Maybe you ought to just go Light Sport."

Damn, I thought, even down there, she somehow manages to keep up with the latest FARs. I'm impressed!

The good thing is, I had suffered no cardiac damage. Never had a heart attack; just massive arterial blockage, now mitigated by four bypasses. A month after the surgery, the medics cleared me to drive. And that meant (since I had never had an FAA medical certificate revoked or denied) I was legal to exercise Sport Pilot privileges. It was tempting.

OK, so as a Sport Pilot, maybe I couldn't fly Son-of-a-Beech. But I could still fly, on just a driver's license, and never have to worry again about passing an FAA physical. There would be some restrictions: day VFR only, in a two-place fixed-gear, fixed-pitch prop single engine land airplane weighing no more than 1320 pounds, with not more than 120 knots cruise speed, and a stall speed of 45 knots or less. But that's not so bad; there are lots of nice aircraft out there that meet the Light Sport requirements, and at least I'd still be flying.

I could be doing that today, if only...

"If only you didn't have all your money tied up in this plane," Avalon completed the thought. "It's a fine machine, but a far cry from Light Sport eligible."

"And it'll never sell," I lamented. "Not for anything even approaching what it's worth. So I guess I'll have to go for that FAA certificate after all."

Then what's the problem, Avalon asked.

"It's a gamble, is what. I can fly Light Sport today. Or, I can go for the medical in a few months, and fly this coupe. I'll probably get approved. But what if I don't? If the FAA refuses me the Special Issuance, I lose the whole game. Not only do I not get to fly my plane..."

"...you lose your Sport Pilot privileges as well," Avalon concluded. "And then you're grounded for good."

She was right; Ian had told me as much.

An MD and FAA-designated Aviation Medical Examiner, Ian was an old friend out on Long Island, who did a lot of volunteer work for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. He had kindly reviewed my case, and was my ace in the hole. "The first rule," Ian had cautioned me, "is that there are no rules. The FAA can do whatever it wants, and there's no due process. No chance to appeal."

"And the second rule?"

"That the rules can change. Without notice." Ian gave me a for-instance. Several years ago, OKC had decided to grant medical certificates to a few pilots who had survived heart transplants. A few of them got themselves back in the air. Then, without warning, the feds changed their minds, and rescinded those medicals. Those transplant patients were not only out their medical certificates, they were also no longer Sport Pilot qualified.

There are no rules. And the rules can change. So, what to do?

I asked Ian if physician-patient confidentiality applies, and he gave a circuitous answer. Since he is not my AME, we can talk off-record. But, as an AME, he is required to report to the FAA anything of which he is aware that compromises safety. So, were he to learn that I was flying without a medical certificate, Ian would be legally required to report me.

But I'm not, I assured him. Just sitting in the plane, practicing instrument procedures.

Then, no problem, Ian conceded. He suggested I wait the six months, get the stress test, and pull together my full medical records (I'd have to do so anyway, for the FAA). Only, send the whole package to him, not the FAA, and let him look it over. He offered to scan the file for red flags. If he found anything suspect, I always had the option of going Light Sport. If he couldn't shoot me down, he doubted the FAA would either, so I'd be pretty safe to submit.

I explained all this to Avalon. She took it all in, and smiled. "So, you have a plan. Looks like you don't need me. Only three things..."

"Yes?"

"There are no rules. And the rules can change. And it's nearly sixteen twenty five zulu."

"Damn!" I exclaimed. "I'd better get outa here!" I picked up the mic and pretended to key it. "New York Center, Beech Six Six Tango X-ray is airborne climbing through one thousand five hundred for four thousand, approaching Swiss Intersection."

"Six Tango X-ray," Avalon's voice replied as she faded from view, "climb and maintain six thousand. Report reaching."

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