You couldn’t ask for a more perfect day. A languid, high-pressure system bathed the central states in unseasonably warm temperatures, clear skies and light winds, an unusual reprieve for early December. It was an ideal day to move my aircraft from its home field in Rogers, AR, to Columbia, MO, to start a major avionics upgrade. A check of the weather even promised a tailwind. Still, I had this nagging feeling like something was off. It wasn’t the airplane – it’s been running like a top. It was me, although I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
On the flight up, the feeling continued to worsen. I kept the checklist on my lap, making doubly sure I didn’t miss any item on the cruise, descent or landing list. My landing was a squeaker and I taxied to the ramp and shut down. My husband, who was chasing me in another airplane, hadn’t arrived yet, so I took my time after shutdown to secure the aircraft. After exchanging a quick thumbs-up with the linesperson, I began cleaning up the cockpit. In this COVID era, I have gotten in the habit of wiping down the cockpit surfaces with disinfecting wipes. As an Angel Flight Central pilot, I am required to follow a cleaning regimen before and following a mission, and concerned that my nagging feeling was the signal of an oncoming cold or worse, I was diligent in cleaning everywhere I touched and even where I didn’t.
After my husband arrived, he dropped the keys in an envelope for the avionics shop, and we headed home. Feeling chilled, I opened a thermos of coffee I had brought along. I couldn’t smell or taste it. By the time we landed, my head was pounding.
You can probably already guess where this is going. Four days later, I tested positive for COVID. That odd feeling I felt was the beginning of one of the worst illnesses I have ever experienced. Thankfully, my doctor was quick with a telemedicine appointment and prescribed steroids, antibiotics and an inhaler. I didn’t require hospitalization, and I recovered at home, so I count myself fortunate. To keep tabs during the darkest hours, I drew on several tools in my pilot bag, including a pulse/oximeter to keep tabs on oxygen saturation levels and heart rate. I also didn’t hesitate in taking a few hits of oxygen from portable O2 that we, fortunately, had available.
Now that I’m on the backside of this virus and out of quarantine, I am considering my steps to re-certify for flying again. The FAA guidance is relatively broad: If a pilot required treatment but was not hospitalized and otherwise recovered well, they can “unground” themselves and return to the cockpit. At the next flight physical, the pilot should report the illness, treatment, and the AME will note that they recovered well. A hospitalization is a reportable event to the FAA at the next flight physical, and you’ll have to gather all of the relevant records, test results, and follow-up for your AME. If no medical deficits are present at that time, the AME will issue a medical.
If the pilot faced a challenging recovery and treatment, it’s a little less clear when it’s okay to return to the cockpit. The experts I’ve spoken with said to first visit your doctor to review pulmonary, neurological and cardiovascular status. You want to make sure you’ve fully recovered or continuing to improve if there are lingering effects. For me, a cough persisted for a few weeks, along with a bit of mental fogginess that I am told will resolve. However, when exactly am I fit for flight? That’s the moving target that many of us who were unfortunately infected are chasing.
At the end of the day, it’s widely recommended that a visit with your AME will help ensure you not only safely return to flight status but provide you confidence that you are good to go.
Several effective vaccines will be available in 2021, and the FAA has approved the use of at least one at this writing. That’s good news and key for the world to move beyond the pandemic.
And how did my husband fare, considering he was shoulder-to-shoulder with me on that fateful flight home? He tested negative twice over eight days and never experienced symptoms.
My advice? Keep following the guidelines regarding masks, distancing and crowds, and don’t let your guard down. I did, and I paid. You just don’t know who it’s going to take down or who it will pass over.
Here’s to a safe, successful 2021 full of new aviation adventures!