For the past few years, I've been struggling with fidgeting, difficulty spending long periods of time on creative tasks, difficulty finishing long and complicated tasks, and a few other symptoms. These are difficult in my professional life as I'm a journalist, so long periods of time doing research and writing is a necessary part of the process. My physician mentioned ADD/ADHD as something to look into, with potential benefit if treated with medication.

The trouble is, I'm also looking into getting my PPL next year, and I noticed that the FAA outright bans a number of ADHD medications, and seems to have a whole extra evaluation process you have to go through if you get diagnosed with ADHD. Nowhere could I find a good explanation of what this means if you're considering getting ADHD treatment but you also love, love, love to fly.

What is the FAA's policy, specifically covering PPL medicals for those being treated for ADHD?

  • $\begingroup$ I would point out that it's pretty obvious that OF COURSE, folks with ADHD generally cannot fly planes. Flying planes is incredibly dangerous to eg. "humans on the ground" , there's no "right" to fly a plane. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Dec 24 '20 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE! This question comes up regularly on aviation discussion forums and you might like to check some out (if you haven't already) to learn about other people's experiences. Unfortunately an ADHD diagnosis seems to make it long, difficult and expensive to get a medical but everyone is different and only an AME can help you with your specific situation. You can also look into flying as a sport pilot. You don't need a medical for that, but if you've ever failed an FAA medical then you can't fly sport either so it would be best to research thoroughly before making any decisions. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 24 '20 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Fattie Agreed! I would mention that typical TV depictions of ADHD are far more severe than most real-world cases. Generally, ADHD looks less like assault and more like trouble focusing for long periods of time, jumping from topic to topic in conversation, and restlessness. As far as focusing it's really creative tasks like writing that get me, and not a problem when flying in my experience, and I can drive for far hours and hours on end without getting bored or distractible. Obviously though, public safety must come first, which has unfortunate consequences for those of us don't threaten it. $\endgroup$ – Tim Dec 25 '20 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife Thanks. I've been reading up on the forums, and what really boggles me is the inconsistency. Countless varied experiences across the community, with equally variable outcomes. I'm trying to find a single solid description of policy as it applies in actual cases with actual outcomes, and I'm worried about talking to an AME in case I say something that might come to haunt me. For example, "trouble focusing" can easily be interpreted as "trouble paying attention to flying the plane", even if this description is far from accurate in my case $\endgroup$ – Tim Dec 25 '20 at 20:19

This article from AOPA outlines the issues with ADHD pretty well.

This article is from Canada but the medical policies are quite similar and you might find the basic information useful.

Bottom line seems to be that once you are formally diagnosed with the condition, that becomes a problem. You can't be on ADHD medications at all (within the last 6 months) and if you are diagnosed (officially) and are not on medications, you have to go through a testing protocol to satisfy the FAA that are fit to fly without medication.

There seems to be a lot of misdiagnosis of ADHD and the symptoms you describe may not be severe enough to be considered a real case (you may be getting too hard on yourself; I get sidetracked on tasks by things like shiny bottle caps on the floor, get bored easily, and if you give me a Rubik's Cube, I'll tire of it and put it down after about 2 minutes, and I've been flying since the mid 70s).

When I read about the symptoms of hard core ADHD (especially over-diagnosis of kids - it's criminal in my mind) it sounds like you would be barely able to function in the world, and your description doesn't sound like it rises to that level. I'd be wary of proceeding along the path to an official diagnosis unless you've decided it's so bad you can't function without medication, and at that point flying is out.

If you do nothing and carry on, and you have a significant case, it'll become obvious during training and you'll probably never get to the solo stage. FAA protocols are based on a diagnosis, which should be by a psychiatrist, so I wouldn't bring it up to an AME until you get to that point. I would explore other non-psychiatric therapies or techniques that could help with focus and discipline first, and would avoid the medical route unless it was a last resort. Your doctor may not have been doing you any favors by suggesting you might have a serious psychiatric condition based on some comments.

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    $\begingroup$ The only benefit to being officially diagnosed is that the doctor can prescribe meds, and since pilots are not allowed to take them, all you’re left with is the cost. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 23 '20 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ It's a matter of human performance limits -- which is a required part of PPL training in Germany at least -- and pilots are expected to make an honest assessment of their ability to fly. Doctors can and should assist in this. Whatever rules exist are there because people in the past failed to do this, and should not be taken as advice on what is barely permissible, but what certainly is not. Hyperfocus can be a good thing, but turns bad if you miss radio transmissions because of that. $\endgroup$ – Simon Richter Dec 24 '20 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ That's not a formal requirement in North America but someone with real ADHD will be extremely difficult to train, and won't be able to hide it, and it's extremely unlikely they will get far at all. If someone is in the US in that situation, then if they want to fly they could just stick with Part 103 ultralights or paramotors where no lic or medical comes into it. $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 24 '20 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ Real-life ADHD isn't like in the movies; most cases are far less severe, and I'm sure you know at least a few people in your life with ADHD who haven't mentioned it. While there are definitely plenty of people with ADHD who I wouldn't want flying a plane, I know far more people whose symptoms are minor and limited in scope to particular situations (research and writing, for example), and could complete training with little to no difficulty beyond that experienced by anyone else. The concern is mandatory disclosure, which doesn't seem to include a checkbox for "some conditions apply" $\endgroup$ – Tim Dec 25 '20 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ When something is on a spectrum like that, you end up capturing a pretty big segment of the population and the definition can become effectively meaningless. Applying that kind of psychiatric label to people who simply get bored easily with certain tasks, and which sometimes can be simply a side effect of very high IQ, is pretty dangerous in my view, but I have an old-timey outlook. The prospect of that label closing doors certainly concentrates the mind. Mandatory disclosure only applies to a formal diagnosis so I wouldn't even go there unless you've decided you need prescribed medication. $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 25 '20 at 21:27

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