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One of the most common misconceptions about aviation is the question of whether hearing impairment is an impediment to being able to obtain or to avail yourself of the privileges of a pilot license. You may have heard (pun intended) that any type of hearing loss equates to an immediate and unconditional disqualification or disbarment from being able to fly. On the contrary, however, there is no sound evidence (pun intended again) for this claim.
The FAA makes it absolutely clear that pilots are allowed to fly as long as the quality of their hearing meets the criteria required for the safe conduct of flight, as specified in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). This can be achieved with or without the use of hearing aids.
Whether you intend to fly for leisure or you intend to pursue aviation as a career, the ultimate goal must be achieved with safety, for yourself and your passengers, in mind. Let’s take a closer look at what the FAA has to say about the use of hearing aids and overall hearing during flight.
What are the FAA’s medical standards for hearing?
According to the FAA’s Flight Standards Information Management System, in the section entitled “Issuance of a Medical Certificate and/or a Statement of Demonstrated Ability, or Letter of Evidence”, pilots may fly with or without hearing aids, as long as the following criteria can be met:
- The pilot must have the ability to hear radio, voice, and signal communications.
- The pilot must have the ability to understand words spoken at a normal, conversational level, whether the engine is on or off, the airplane is in the air or on the ground, and with the engine at all power settings (idle to maximum).
- The pilot must have the ability to estimate glide by sound in relation to airspeed.
- The pilot must have the ability to recognize an approaching stall by change in sound in relation to airspeed. (It perhaps goes without saying that the pilot must also be able to hear the stall warning indicator, although that is not specifically called out as a requirement).
Do hearing requirements vary per type of pilot rating?
The medical certification standards for hearing are the same, regardless of what type of medical certificate you are pursuing.
There are 4 basic classes of medical certification for pilots:
|Class of Medical Certification||Intended Use|
|1st Class||For Airline Transport Pilots|
|2nd Class||For Commercial Aviation (excluding passenger and cargo airlines)|
|3rd Class||For General Aviation / Non-Commercial Private Pilots|
|BasicMed||For General Aviation / Recreational / Sport Pilots|
As long as the hearing requirements can be met, as per the FAA medical standards in the above section, with or without hearing aids, you can be cleared for any medical certificates.
How is hearing tested by Aviation Medical Examiners?
Pilots who seek to obtain a 1st class, 2nd class, or 3rd class medical certificate are required to undergo a medical exam administered by a Federally licensed Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). This exam must be conducted once every 5 years, for pilots under the age of 40, and once every 2 years (for pilots above the age of 40, respectively.
The FAA has published a Guide For Aviation Medical Examiners on how to administer and measure the pilot’s hearing.
What are the hearing tests that must be conducted on pilots?
There are the tests that an AME will be required to administer on a pilot seeking a 1st class, 2nd class, or 3rd class medical certificate:
|Type of Hearing Test||Requirements|
|Conversational Voice Test||The pilot must be able to hear an average conversational voice in a quiet room with both ears. |
The pilot’s back must be turned to the AME, using both ears.
The pilot must be sitting 6 feet away from the AME.
|Pure Tone Audiometric Test||The pilot must be able to hear tones at the minimum thresholds as defined by the American National Standards Institute, 1969.|
This test is only required if the pilot fails to pass the Conversational Voice Test.
|Audiometric Speech Discrimination Test||If a pilot fails to pass either a Conversational Voice Test or a Pure Tone Audiometric Test, then the pilot will be required to undergo this type of test. Typically this type of test would have to be administered by an otologist or audiologist, if the AME is not licensed to practice as such.|
The information in the above table can be found in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Section 14 Part 67.105 section on ear, nose, throat, and equilibrium considerations.
Ear, Nose, and Throat Considerations That May Affect Hearing
In addition to the hearing tests outlined in Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Section 14 Part 67.105, the AME must also ascertain the following as part of the medical exam for a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class medical certificate:
- The pilot must not suffer from any type of disease or any type of condition of the middle ear, inner ear, the nose, the oral cavity, the pharynx, or the larynx that has the potential to interfere with or to be aggravated by flying.
- The pilot must not suffer from any type of disease or any type of condition of the middle ear, inner ear, the nose, the oral cavity, the pharynx, or the larynx that has the potential to interfere with clear and effective speech articulation.
- The pilot must not suffer from any type of disease or any type of condition that could result in vertigo or any type of equilibrium imbalance.
Is Tinnitus Disqualifying For Pilots?
Tinnitus, which refers to perception of ringing in the ears, whether it occurs persistently or occasionally, is not disqualifying for pilots in and of itself.
As long as you are able to pass the hearing tests in the section above (what are the hearing tests that must be conducted on pilots?), then tinnitus in and of itself is not a disqualifying factor for pilots.
If it is severe and debilitating, then hearing aids may be a viable option for you. Hearing aids can mask the ringing sounds that you are hearing, and thus alleviate this condition.
How is hearing tested by General Physicians For BasicMed?
The requirements to fly under BasicMed are far less stringent than those of the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class medical certificates.
It is designed for private pilots who wish to fly for leisure or recreation in a basic single-engine 4 to 6 seater aircraft, within the continental USA.
The medical exam for BasicMed can be administered by any general physician, and does not even need to be an AME.
Therefore, no hearing test is required per se. The physician need only conduct a general physical exam and complete the information on the FAA Comprehensive Medical Examination Checklist for BasicMed. Hearing is not even called out as a specific checklist item. However, there is room for the physician to address any concerns on this checklist, at their discretion.
What happens if a pilot fails to pass all hearing tests?
If a pilot fails to pass all of the aforementioned hearing tests, all is not lost. There are still alternatives to demonstrating your ability to safely operate an aircraft. You may be able to still fly, albeit with certain restrictions and limitations.
According to the Flight Standards Information Management System, if a pilot has total hearing loss:
- The pilot must be able to recognize engine power loss by a change in vibration as well as by scanning the instrument panel and recognizing the signs of said power loss.
- The pilot must be able to recognize an impending stall through the sensations of the aerodynamic buffeting that typically occurs, as well as through visual clues.
- The pilot must be able to identify a retractable landing gear emergency (if applicable) through the direct observation of landing gear warning lights on the instrument panel.
What is a Special Issuance Medical Certificate?
If the above criteria can be met then a pilot may be eligible to obtain what is known as a “special issuance medical certificate”. This is a provisional type of medical certificate that is issued to pilots on a case-by-case basis, in situations where they may not otherwise be able to successfully pass a conventional AME-administered comprehensive medical exam. Similar to the other classes of medical certification, a special issuance also carries with it an expiration date, after which it must be renewed again accordingly.
FAR 67.401 addresses the requirements for special issuance medical certificates.
What is the Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA)?
In order for a pilot to be granted a special issuance medical certificate, the AME must file what is known as a Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA).
As the name implies, the pilot must demonstrate their ability to safely conduct a flight without posing any danger to public safety.
This can be achieved, at the AME’s discretion, through any combination of one or more of each of the following:
- a specialized medical flight test
- a practical test
- a medical evaluation for this specific scenario
These tests will be administered with the goal of assessing the pilot’s ability to meet the requirements as described in the section above (what happens if a pilot fails to pass all hearing tests) and which are enumerated in the Flight Standards Information Management System.
SODAs are addressed in FAR 67.401.
The FAA also issues guidance to AMEs on the process of issuing a SODA.
Can noise-canceling headsets be used in lieu of hearing aids?
If the AME issues you a special issuance certificate that stipulates that you specifically must use hearing aids, then it would be required for you to do so.
Having said that, many pilots will affirm that certain headsets with active noise reduction (ANR) are quite effective as an alternative to hearing aids during flight.
Some will also affirm that hearing aids interfere with certain headsets, resulting in a squelching feedback loop.
Some will also affirm that certain hearing aids may cause an obstruction for the proper fit of headphones over the ears.
If the headsets are capable of achieving the same level of hearing amplification and noise reduction efficacy as that of their own hearing aids, then this may meet the requirement.
However, it is imperative that you consult with an AME specifically with this regard, in order to ensure that you remain in legal compliance with FAA directives and guidelines.
Can a deaf person become a commercial pilot?
Ultimately, hearing loss does not prevent someone from becoming a pilot. However, hearing loss can limit what you can and can’t do as a pilot. As long as you are granted a special issuance medical certificate with a SODA, then you can enjoy the benefits of flying.
The FAA makes provisions for imposing limitations on one’s pilot license, as per FAR 14 Part 61.13.
If a pilot is deaf, then the pilot certificate will include the limitation “Not Valid for Flights Requiring the Use of Radio”.
This essentially precludes a deaf pilot from being able to fly into any controlled airspace that requires two-way radio communication between Air Traffic Control (ATC) or a Control Tower, and the pilot.
This would limit a pilot to being able to fly either in Glass G airspace or in Class E airspace under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions. They would be restricted to flying in and out of uncontrolled, non towered airports only.
As for whether a deaf person is restricted to only recreational flying as a private pilot, the FAA makes it clear that deaf people can become commercial pilots as well.
In fact, the FAA offers guidance on what deaf pilots can and cannot do with a commercial pilot license.
Therefore, a deaf pilot could still obtain their commercial pilot license and get paid for commercial operations that do not require radio communication, such as:
- Banner towing
- Agricultural flights (such as crop dusting)
As the technology for receiving digital information in the cockpit evolves (such as through graphical or text information in the glass panel displays), this may allow deaf pilots to avail themselves of expanded opportunities for flying over the course of time.