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August 8, 2014

First, I apologize for the length of this post, but I feel the message is vitally important to pilots in Minnesota.

As an aviation medical examiner, one must attend an update workshop at least once every 6 years, and I decided to attend such a workshop in Bethesda, MD, beginning today and running through Sunday.  Given the proximity of Bethesda to Washington, D.C., the new Federal Air Surgeon, James Fraser MD, was willing to provide an hour in which he presented his priorities and his outlook on aviation medicine as it applies to aviation medical examiners.  There are about 200 in attendance, I would estimate.

Dr. Fraser has been a Naval officer for 30 years, I believe, being an Air Surgeon for most of that time.  He left the military to assist his predecessor in the Federal Air Surgeon's office, Fred Tilton MD, about 10 years ago and took over as Federal Air Surgeon in January of this year, 2014.  He is a good speaker, and is likeable and believeable, imho.  Having heard Dr. Tilton speak several years ago I feel Dr. Fraser is quite a step up from his predecessor in terms of his ability to communicate with the AME's.  I had the opportunity to spend some time one-on-one with Dr. Fraser and the following remarks are made after listening to him in both venues.

Having said this, he is quite up front in his conviction that the FAA needs to be involved with each and every pilot who holds a medical certificate.  While he doesn't directly say he is not in favor of the proposed "Pilot Protection Act", he made several references to this legislation and made mention on several occasions that it was ironic that the "Senator from Oklahoma", who is promoting the legislation which would effectively eliminate the Third Class Medical, is the same one who landed on a "Closed airport, despite large yellow X's on the runway" (of course, the crowd of AME's saw the humor and irony in this).

Dr. Fraser went on to point out that the counter to the Pilot Protection Act is a proposed rulemaking action which is in the works, the details of which he was not at liberty to disclose.  He did say that it "mirrors" that of the EAA/AOPA petition, and that it would satisfy both EAA and AOPA.  He then went on to describe the steps which are involved in a potential change when rulemaking paths ensue.

Here is my pretty pathetic description of the rulemaking process (Kirby, please jump in and correct me if I am misleading anyone).  The proposal for rulemaking is made, and this remains in this state for about a year if all goes well.  At that point it becomes listed in the Federal Register, where it stays for a minimum of one year, often more than that.  He estimates that this would put the emergence of a new rule to be about 3 years from now, if all goes well, but that the rulemaking process can considerably alter the intial proposal as the political forces do their thing.  If the rulemaking begins soon, this would put the new rule becoming policy in about 2017, at the earliest.  He emphasized to the audience of AME's that the Third Class Medical would remain for at least 3 years, and probably longer, so "don't worry too much about this".  This was met with considerable head nodding in the audience, which is composed of primarily elderly men and (a scant few) women (I would estimate that there are approximately 80% of the attendees who are in their late 60's-70's.

He made only tangential mention of the legislation that is in the House and Senate.

I came away with the following impression, and I may be way off base on this, but I think not.

I think the FAA is just as afraid of the legislative action as are the AME organization.  They may have cut a deal with EAA/AOPA to include most of the verbage of their petition so as to take the heat off of the issue, with the intent (expectation) of defusing the tension that exists with "the bloggers" (his words) and those involved in the legislative action.  I think the FAA put forward this rulemaking process as a means of diverting and deflecting the criticism of the FAA that they are not doing enough to address the issues that have been raised, which would likely make the aviation lobby let down our guard, which would decrease the demands we are making to our legislators to pass the proposed legislation.  The FAA knows how things work inside the Beltway, and they know that the rulemaking is likely to significantly water down the proposed rule changes, if they survive at all.  By calming the waters, the rulemaking process will kill two birds with one stone, torpedoing the EAA/AOPA petition while coming across with both aviation groups as being willing to listen to these groups.  I think it is a very clever political move.

With this in mind, I feel the only chance we really have is to promote the legislative action.  I think we need to assume that this rulemaking is going to go nowhere, and if it does go anywhere the final product isn't going to be very helpful to us at all.  I feel our only hope is to continue to pressure our Representatives and Senators to pass this legislation.

I really hope I am wrong on this, but am afraid I am not.  I hope that the leaders of EAA and AOPA have not been duped into a political trap, but am afraid they have...with the best of intentions on our leaders part.

So, I choose to continue to put pressure on our legislators.  I hope this helps you formulate your personal strategy, and I hope it will encourage you to become involved.

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