Yes, it is possible for someone with ADHD to become a private pilot in the US. However, the FAA does not allow pilots to take any medication used to treat the condition. If a pilot discloses an ADHD diagnosis, the FAA will require specific testing before an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) will issue a medical certificate.
This can be a complex area. I have a private pilot friend who is currently going through this exact process. So, I’ll share what I’ve learned on his journey of becoming a pilot with ADHD.
DISCLAIMER: First off, I’m not a doctor, so I need to clarify that nothing you read here should be taken as medical advice. Always consult with an AME in relation to aeromedical topics.
Table of Contents
Background to ADHD Pilots License Issues
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder with symptoms like poor attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. As a neurocognitive condition, it can impact a pilot’s ability to fly safely.
ADHD is seen by many aviation regulatory bodies around the world as a disqualifying condition that makes a person unfit to become a pilot and fly.
Many believe that in the US, the FAA take a very hard-lined approach to ADHD and that their understanding of the condition is outdated.
I’ll explain the procedures that are in place to work around this.
Prevalence of ADHD in the General Private Pilot Population
ADHD begins in childhood and often persists into adulthood. It affects up to 4% of US adults. Even though I couldn’t find specific statistics, it’s probably safe to assume that approximately the same number of pilots have ADHD, (whether the diagnosis is right or wrong).
Importance of Concentration and Decision-Making for Private Pilots
Before, during, and after a flight, pilots need to have the ability to concentrate and manage multiple complex tasks. Pilots often need to make split-second decisions that can have an impact on flight safety. This can pose a challenge for pilots with ADHD.
Pilots with ADHD and Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM)
The problem with pilots having ADHD is that the condition can hinder good ADM. The FAA is of the opinion that if the pilot cannot focus properly, how can pilot duties be effectively carried out?
The Potential Impact of ADHD on a Pilot’s Ability to Make Decisions and Fly Safely
There are three types of ADHD. These are inattention, hyperactivity, and a combination of both. All three can pose a threat to flight safety.
The FAA’s Stance on Pilots with ADHD
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is unlikely to issue a pilot a medical certificate if they are taking medicine to treat their ADHD.
The FAA believes that ADHD medicines, like stimulants, can cause cognitive problems that make it unsafe for an airman to do his or her job as a pilot.
So, this begs the question, how to become a pilot with ADHD and is it even possible?
Requirements for Obtaining a Pilot’s Medical Certificate
On the FAA’s medical application, a pilot may have to say whether or not they have ever been treated for ADHD or taken medicine for it.
This is because the FAA considers the condition to be an illness of aeromedical significance. Aeromedically relevant means that a condition could affect a pilot’s ability to fly an airplane safely.
What Are the Relevant FAA Tests?
People with ADHD who want to become pilots should talk to an FAA-designated AME and an aviation medicine-focused neuropsychologist.
A neuropsychologist can conduct a battery of testing to determine whether an individual with ADHD has any cognitive deficits that may interfere with their ability to safely operate an aircraft.
FAA requirements include two test batteries to be completed after 90 days of not being on medications for the condition. There is a required urinalysis on the day of or within 24 hours of the test to make sure you have no drugs present.
What is the Initial Battery?
The Initial Battery includes a comprehensive review of your background and possibly an interview with people with information on your health background. Parents, school counselors, teachers, employers, and flight instructors are all possible interviewees.
This is often a long, drawn-out process.
Tests or questionnaires used may include:
- Conners Adult ADHD Rating Scale, Long Version (CAARS)
- Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) or Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System (D-KEFS) Verbal Fluency
- Trail Making Test
- Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) Reading
A drug screening for ADHD drugs, including psychostimulants, amphetamines, and methylphenidate, follows cognitive testing. At the very most, the drug test happens no later than 24 hours after the cognitive test.
If all the test results are within normal limits, there is no further action required for testing. When there are concerns, the Supplemental Battery follows next.
What is the Supplemental Battery?
The Supplemental Battery involves additional testing to determine flying competency. Intelligence testing, using the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, plays a leading role.
Executive function is tested using Stroop, Tower of London (TOL), Drexel Edition, and the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test. If the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test was previously administered, the Category Test is used in its place.
Academic testing in areas that relate to pilot function the most is also part of the Supplemental Battery. These areas include decoding, math computation, math reasoning, and reading comprehension.
Verbal fluency using a semantic fluency test is also part of the Battery. Verbal fluency is tested using COWAT, as well as a semantics fluency task like D-KEFS or the Animal Naming Test.
Applicants will also undergo verbal memory testing. Possible tests used for this purpose include California Verbal Learning Test, Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test, or WMS subtests.
Depending on specific indications from your testing, you might require psychomotor testing. Tests may include Finger Tapping Test and Purdue Pegboard or the Grooved Pegboard.
How Do You Prepare for Testing?
The FAA has a checklist that many find helpful when preparing for their Initial or Supplemental Battery. Although this checklist cannot provide better results in and of itself, it’s a valuable resource.
Regardless of your location, you will need a neuropsychologist to perform the evaluation and testing. This professional must have experience in aeromedical neuropsychology.
What Are the Testing Costs?
These tests are relatively expensive to administer. Most tests will cost $2,500-$3,500, with prices varying among doctors.
How Long Will You Wait for a Decision?
There is no universal timeframe for how long these tests take. However, at a minimum, you should expect this process to take about a year.
Because of all the bureaucracy involved, some have had to wait for years for a medical.
Getting started sooner instead of later is better because the length of time may vary considerably.
You will not be able to maintain your pilot certification if you fail any of these tests.
Taking advantage of the AOPA Medical Resources before any testing will help you know what to expect from the process, as well as learn more about legal options.
If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD or recently ceased taking your medications, you ought to consider doing the testing before you apply to flight school.
Potential Risks of Taking ADHD Medication While Flying
Regardless of whether you’re flying a Cessna 172 or an Airbus, the potential side effects of this medicine make it more difficult for a pilot to fly safely. These medications affect perception, motor, and cognitive skills. It’s also harder for pilots taking meds used to treat ADHD to tell when they’re feeling tired.
Medications That May Affect a Pilot’s Ability to Obtain a Medical Certificate
ADHD medicines like Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin, Strattera, Vyvanse, Dexedrine, Methylin, and Focalin could make it hard for a pilot to get a medical license.
The jury is out on whether this hard stance by the FAA is appropriate or not. Some believe that ADHD medicines actually heighten the ability to focus. They feel that the FAA’s blanket “no to ADHD meds” is outdated and shows a lack of understanding.
Anyway, the FAA has the final say, so bear that in mind.
The role of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Investigating Accidents Involving Pilots with ADHD
The NTSB investigates fatal accidents. When such an accident involves a pilot with a diagnosis of ADHD, it is often found that the pilot:
- didn’t properly plan for the flight
- made poor decisions about continuing the flight when not appropriate (get there itis)
- deliberately breached safety protocols by flying dangerous maneuvers
- got distracted and made critical mistakes
Are these findings because the pilot with ADHD was unmedicated? I guess we’ll never know.
Problems with Diagnosing ADHD in Pilots
The Difficulty of Accurately Diagnosing ADHD
ADHD is often misdiagnosed because diagnosis is difficult and time consuming. It is commonly believed that doctors sometimes give a diagnosis or prescribe ADHD medication without sufficient proof that the disorder exists.
This leads to the likelihood that ADHD is often overdiagnosed.
The consequences of pilots hiding their ADHD diagnosis
The consequences of pilots hiding their ADHD diagnosis can be severe. Not only can it put the pilot, their passengers, and other individuals in danger if they are unable to properly focus on the task of flying, but it could also lead to legal ramifications. Pilots who choose to hide their condition may face civil or criminal charges for endangering the lives of others by not disclosing their condition. Furthermore, there can be significant financial costs associated with a lack of disclosure, such as increased insurance premiums or fines from regulatory bodies. In some cases, pilots may be sued and even lose their license due to not disclosing their diagnosis.
Summary of the Challenges Faced by Private Pilots with ADHD
Being a private pilot with ADHD can be challenging as the demands of the job often require a high level of focus and concentration.
Pilots must pass stringent FAA regulations in order to become certified, making it difficult for those with ADHD to complete all the necessary requirements.
Pilots must stay focused and alert while flying which can be difficult for someone with ADHD who may find it hard to concentrate for long periods at a time. Pilots must also have good organizational skills and multitasking abilities in order to manage all the tasks required for flight preparation and during takeoff and landing.
The Importance of Transparency and Honesty in the Medical Certification Process for Pilots
Some CFIs have told me that pilots often hide the fact that they have been diagnosed with ADHD. They probably fear that they’ll never get an FAA medical certificate. The problem is that an ADHD diagnosis often becomes public after a fatal accident. The ADHD meds show up on the toxicology report.
My advice is to always be completely honest when going through the medical certification process to get your private pilot license.
So the bottom line is that someone with ADHD can become a private pilot in the United States. But the FAA won’t let pilots take any of the medicines that are used to treat the condition.
If a pilot tells the FAA that they have ADHD, an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) will not be able to give them a medical certificate until they pass certain tests. These tests are expensive and the entire process can be time-consuming.
Best of luck if you have ADHD and you want to get your PPL certificate.