Late in the Game: A (Losing) Team’s Point-Guard Head-fake

March Madness: Cross-Court play between Congress and 800 Independence…

Hard to believe, but the FAA finally, officially addressed the joint AOPA/EAA petition to expand Sport Pilot-like medical qualifications to some pilots and operations…a petition built on reasonably crafted limitations.

That tardy response from the FAA is, of course, all the talk here at the 40th Annual Sun ‘n Fun fly-In at KLAL in Florida. GA, business aviation and airline pilots have a stake in this play and have been vocal in their support of the prospect.

So what’s the problem? Where’s the “yeah but” in that?

Well….Emerging, as it does, from the din of March Madness basketball action, the FAA’s non-endorsement endorsement of easing the Third Class Medical requirements looks a lot like a point guard’s head-fake on a fast-break dash toward home court and away from the opponent’s end of the hardwood — at least from these bleacher seats.

The “opponent” for my purposes here would be Team GA Caucus in the United States Congress. The Senate recently upped the game with a second piece of legislation to match December’s first proposal pending on the other side of Capital Hill.

AOPA and EAA crafted a balanced, reasonable petition; the medical exemption, as most people in GA know by now, would exempt pilots from the Third Class requirement for flying four-seat aircraft of up to 180 horsepower; those pilots who chose the non-medical path would be able to use only two of those four seats, fly day, VFR only, and have to learn some specifics about medical ‘self-certification’ — something every pilot does every time they fly since the FAA kindly avoided also requiring a pre-flight check by our AMEs before flying.

FAA published the AOPA/EAA petition as required; the petition drew more than 16,000 responses, overwhelmingly positive. The comment period ended…and since the FAA has spoken little to none about the subject. The AOPA, EAA and others in the Alphabet Group Cheer Squad also chimed in, complaining to FAA, then Congress, about the <ahem> appearance that the FAA was trying to ignore the petition and it’s support. Said one agency staffer, the FAA would have loved to see the petition issue “go away” for a while so FAA can concentrate on all those other efforts to help grow GA…whatever those are right now.

Enter Team GA Caucus late last year — also well into the game, but changing the balance on the court like a coach who just pulled his B Team from a game after already scoring a double-digit lead against the opposition — rotating in the A Team players. The addition of the second legislative proposal made the game suddenly feel like seeing a Bobby Knight run up the score on an NCAA opponent.

The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act introduced late last year runs up points by expanding the exemption to aircraft of up to six seats and 6,000 pounds, capable of speeds up to 250 knots — knots, folks, more than 285 mph — at altitudes to 14,000 feet. Oh, one more little three-pointer in this play: Night flying. No instrument flying, as proposed, but that can (and should) change with an amendment, as should the 14,000 msl limit. Make that ceiling FL180, a number consistent with where Instrument flight is already required and where the FAA elected to divide the requirements for ADS-B Out.

This really makes the Team FAA look, for all the world, to be playing defense at a desperate level, offering, really, nothing so far except a statement that an official rulemaking process is pending…nothing like showing up on the court after being absent through the entire first half of this contest.

The FAA’s promise of action, “soon,” plays like nothing more than a head fake by a point guard hoping to stave off a runaway game. Members of Team GA Caucus are, wisely, staying on the court, vowing to continue to advance the GAPPA; co-sponsors continue to sign on to the proposed laws, a good sign.

Can’t speak for any one else but me, but honestly hope Team GA Caucus runs out the clock with a double-digit win for General Aviation. After last year’s rapid, bi-partisan action to pass legislation to accelerate FAR 23 certification reforms, it’s obvious that where GA is concerned, members of both chambers can clearly work together — and get the President’s signature.

Congress should repeat that success with GAPPA and not be fooled by a head fake.

The FAA’s acquiescence is not a solution; absent the real proposal, Team GA Caucus should keep up the fast-break pressure and we should keep cheering them on, as members of the pep squad of pilots and Alphabet groups.

GA needs it.