A Tale of Two Medicals

There has been a lot of noise about the fact that two Yalies are running against each other in the U.S. presidential election, but people have paid less attention to the fact that two pilots are running against each-other. Their backgrounds are very different: President Bush flew military aircraft for a few years in the early 1970’s (and again, infamously, when he arrived on the U.S.S. Lincoln and spoke under the “Mission Accomplished” sign in May, 2003, though he was not pilot in command on that flight); Senator Kerry has flow general-aviation aircraft continuously since the 1960’s and holds a commercial pilot’s license and multi-engine IFR rating, among many others. One of the most interesting contrasts, however, comes with the two candidates’ aviation medical examinations. [Update 2004-10-24: corrected information on US medical requirements]

All pilots have to take special medical examinations regularly to keep our licenses valid. I renewed my own medical for my Canadian private pilot’s license a couple of weeks ago, and I barely passed: despite the fact that I’m only 39, run 25-35 km every week, lift weights, maintain a healthy body weight, and eat a textbook good diet, and have excellent eyesight and ECG readings, my blood pressure has always been borderline (even when I was younger), and this time I just squeaked through. Some pilots won’t take a medical if they think they won’t pass, preferring to ground themselves temporarily and (hopefully) solve the problem, rather than failing a medical and possibly grounding themselves for life.

Back in 1972, a younger and apparently healthier man, Lt. George W. Bush, skipped his own medical and grounded himself from flying in the Texas National Air Guard. The only two reasonable explanations are that Lt. Bush wanted an excuse to stop flying, or conversely, that he was afraid of failing the medical and losing his flying priviledges permanently. Now, 32 years later, President Bush’s opponents have had fun speculating that the young lieutenant might have been concealing drug use, but it’s also worth considering that he might have been concealing some more natural health problem, like heart murmers, high blood pressure, or blood sugar problems, that can and do affect otherwise young healthy men.

In contrast, Senator Kerry seems to go almost overboard on his medicals, as illustrated by his entry in the FAA airmen database (available at landings.com):

Name                : KERRY, JOHN FORBES
Airman's Address    : 19 LOUISBURG SQ
                       BOSTON, MA, 02108-1202
FAA Region          : New England
Date of Medical     : Dec, 2003
Class of Medical    : 2
Expiration          : Dec, 2004
Airman Certificates : Commercial Pilot
                         Airplane Single Engine Land
                         Airplane Single Engine Sea
                         Airplane Multiengine Land
                         Instrument Airplane
                         Glider Aero Tow (Private Pilot)

The two most interesting fields here are the date and class of the senator’s last medical. In December 2003, in the middle of a brutally-fought primary campaign (where he was not yet the front-runner) and constant travelling, Senator Kerry still took an afternoon off to visit a doctor and take his medical examination; not only that, but it was the class 2 medical for commercial (non-airline) pilots, which is tougher than the class 3 private-pilot medical I (21 years younger) barely passed. It would have been an easy matter to downgrade to a class 3 medical, which does not need to be renewed as often.

What does all this mean? It does tell us that, as a matter of public record, Senator Kerry is a very healthy man even under the stress of campaigning — that’s bad news, perhaps, for Senator Edwards and his personal supporters, and it may also explain why Senator Kerry seems so dull on TV (his abnormally healthy metabolism keeps him from getting pumped up?). It also shows that Senator Kerry is committed, almost to the point of fanaticism, to general aviation — I love to fly, but if I were in a national campaign and could take an afternoon off, I’d probably use it to rest, not to visit a doctor’s office to be poked, prodded, and wired up to an ECG machine. [Correction 2004-10-24: Rick Potts informed me that the U.S. does not require an EKG for a second- or third-class medical; he also mentioned that the second-class medical is not significantly more difficult than the third-class.]

And what about President Bush? He, too, seems to be a healthy man — I’m certain that he could run circles around me — but either he was never that committed to flying, or there is something that he is concealing in his medical history, such as recreational drug use (no big deal, especially if he gave it up decades ago) or some other, more persistent problem, like my own borderline high blood pressure. If it’s the latter, it is something that has been with him for over three decades, though obviously it does not prevent him from being active.

I plan to follow this up with a second pilot-vs-pilot posting on security, and then revert to aviation topics unrelated to American politics.

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