Beginner’s Series: Four Forces of Flight

How exactly DOES an airplane fly? How is it possible for a jumbo jet weighing hundreds of tons to actually lift of the ground and fly through the air?

First, it is important to understand that anything that flies through the air, from the jumbo jet we were just talking about to the small airplane you will fly for your training, to the frisbee or the paper airplane you threw as a kid (or just earlier today, you rascal), all have the same four forces acting on them allowing them to fly.

Those four forces of flight are: lift, thrust, drag, and weight (or gravity).

And here is what the four forces of flight look like in relation to each other and an airplane:

Four Forces of Flight


Lift is generated by the wings, and opposes weight / gravity. When lift is greater than weight, the airplane climbs.  When lift is less than weight, the airplane descends.  When lift and weight are equal, the airplane maintains its altitude.

Lift is always generated perpendicular to the wings (so in a turn, lift actually “pulls” sideways as the airplane banks, and in a climb, lift actually “pulls” backwards slightly, since the nose is pointed upwards somewhat). In this way, lift actually contributes to drag (see induced drag).


On your training airplane, thrust is generated by the propeller, which is turned by the powerplant. Thrust moves the airplane forward through the air, and it opposes drag.  When thrust is greater than drag, the airplane accelerates.  When drag is greater than thrust, the airplane decelerates / slows down. When thrust and drag are equal, the aircraft maintains its airspeed.

Thrust / Lift cooperation

Lift is often given credit for making an airplane fly; however, technically, no lift would be generated without thrust to move the airplane through the air. So in reality, excess thrust is actually what makes an airplane fly, because without that thrust, no lift would ever be generated in the first place!


Weight is simply how much the airplane weighs. Sometimes this force is referred to as gravity, since gravity pulls down on the plane in relation to its weight. Weight opposes lift. An airplane must create more lift than weight to climb to higher altitudes.

Weight always pulls down directly toward the ground - unlike lift, which can change direction as the airplane pitches (nose up / nose down) or rolls (“banks” (leans) left or right). This concept will be important when you start to learn about aerodynamics in turns, so keep this in mind!


Drag is, quite simply, a force that opposes thrust. As an airplane moves through the air, there is friction from the air itself running into the aircraft.

There are two types of drag you need to be aware of:

  1. Parasite Drag: also known as “form” drag. Parasite drag is simply the air “running into” parts of the airplane. Parts like antennas, rivets, tires, the windscreen, your arm sticking out the window, anything and everything that the winds “hits” causes parasite drag.
  2. Induced Drag: This type of drag is a little harder to wrap your head around, but it is simply drag caused as a result of the creation of lift.  Remember above, when I said that lift is created perpendicular to the wings? Well, the wings are never really “flat” against the wind, so the lift vector is always pointed slightly to the back of the aircraft.  That “backwards” lift is induced drag. The more lift being created, the more drag is created.

While drag opposes thrust, you should know and understand that it does not EXACTLY oppose thrust.  Just as weight always points directly down toward the ground, regardless of the airplane’s attitude, drag is always opposite to the airplane’s flight path. The flight path is rarely the same as where the nose is actually pointed. For example, in a climb, thrust points directly where the nose is pointing, but the aircraft is not climbing directly where the nose is pointing; it is actually “mushing” into the air somewhat, which means drag is offset slightly “above” the thrust vector. This can be difficult to imagine, so see the below image of the 4 vectors during an aircraft’s climb (exaggerated):

Four Forces in a Climb

In conclusion, and to circle back around to the initial question: “How is it possible for a jumbo jet to actually lift of the ground and fly through the air?”

Any airplane will fly if its thrust exceeds its drag, and its lift exceeds its weight. If the four engines on a Boeing 747, producing a total thrust of more than 250,000 pounds, can exceed the drag the aircraft produces, and its 196 foot long wings can produce enough lift to exceed its weight (maximum 970,000 pounds), it can fly!

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Beginner’s Series: Parts of an Airplane

When you start your flight training, you will learn lots of new terms and phrases. You’ll be expected to know what those terms refer to in relation to your airplane.

Wings, tail, engine, etc. are pretty easy to remember, but there are many new terms that you may not be familiar with. Such as:

Fuselage Empennage
Spinner Aileron
Horizontal Stabilizer Vertical Stabilizer
Cowl Cockpit

And other words that you may know but that mean something different in relation to aircraft:

Trim Strut
Elevator Rudder
Beacon Flap

With that in mind, let’s take a look at all the parts of an airplane that you’ll need to know.  We’ll also discuss a little bit about what they do and how they work.
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The fuselage (sounds like "moose-ah-lodge") is the main body of the airplane. The wings, tail, and landing gear are attached to the fuselage. Basically, it holds everything else together as well as containing the passengers and baggage.

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The empennage (sounds like "hemp-a-nudge") is what is colloquially known as the “Tail” of an airplane – the entire tail section.  The tail section (empennage) actually consists of multiple parts:

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  • Vertical Stabilizer: the “up and down” (vertical) part of the tail, to which the rudder is attached
  • Rudder: The rudder is a “control surface” which moves side-to-side, controlling the airplane’s “yaw.” Similar to the rudder of a boat.
  • Rudder Trim Tab: Most likely, your training airplane will not have rudder trim, or will have a “fixed” rudder trim tab. A fixed rudder trim tab can only be adjusted while the plane is on the ground. A fixed tab should only be adjusted by a qualified aircraft mechanic (see picture below).

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  • Horizontal Stabilizer: The “side-to-side” (horizontal) part of the tail, to which the elevators are attached.  Sometimes referred to as the “tail wing” (interestingly, this is not an incorrect term).
  • Elevator: The elevator is a “control surface” which moves up-and-down, controlling the airplane’s “pitch” (whether the nose is pointed up or down).  There are generally two elevators, one on each side of the vertical stabilizer. Each elevator is connected to one of the horizontal stabilizers, which are located on each side of the vertical stabilizer. Both elevators move the same direction when moved.
  • Elevator Trim Tab: The elevator trim tab is a small portion of the elevator that is a control surface in and of itself.  It is moved by a wheel or crank in the cockpit of the aircraft, and allows the pilot to “set” the elevator position.  Think of it as “cruise control” for the airplane, as it can be set to a specific airspeed or pitch. Once set, the airplane will always try to return to this setting when disturbed (by the pilot or atmospheric conditions). See picture, below.

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The cockpit is simply where the pilot sits.  It has all the controls to move and adjust the control surfaces (which include the rudder, elevators, ailerons, flaps, and trim), as well as flight instruments. Flight instruments are like the speedometer and tachometer in your car: they give the pilot important information about what the plane is doing and where it is going. Communication and navigation radios are also found in the cockpit. You will learn all about the stuff in the cockpit of your specific training aircraft. The cockpit is sometimes called the “Flight Deck” (especially on larger aircraft).

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Wings are pretty self-explanatory and easy to recognize.  They stick out from the fuselage to each side of the airplane. An airplane's wings hold some of the plane's control surfaces (ailerons and flaps, to be specific).  They also hold fuel tanks and some instrument system parts, such as the pitot tube and stall sensor. Depending on whether your airplane is a high-wing or low-wing, it may support your main landing gear or have a strut. The front (round) part of the wing is called the “Leading Edge,” and the back (pointy) part of the wing is called the “Trailing Edge.”

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The ailerons (pronounced "ale-er-ons") are control surfaces that are attached to the wings of the airplane.  They live on the outer portion of the trailing edge of each wing, and there are two of them.  They move up-and-down, and always move opposite in relation to each other (if the right aileron moves up, the left aileron moves down). They control the “bank” or “roll” of the airplane. The airplane “banks” or “rolls” when it turns and “leans” into the turn, sort of like when you are riding a bicycle.

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The flaps are also attached to the trailing edge of the wings, one on each side, just like the ailerons. Flaps, though, are “inside” – closer to the fuselage – if they exist at all. Flaps can be extended or retracted. They can also be “partially extended,” which just means that they are not “fully extended.”  They are used to generate extra lift (and they also create A LOT of drag), and are usually only used on landing. Sometimes, you will use flaps when you are doing certain maneuvers in flight. They are also sometimes used on takeoff in very specific situations. They are generally electrically or manually driven on training aircraft (they are often hydraulic on large aircraft).

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Most high-wing airplanes have a strut, which is really just a support for the wing. It is used to save weight (and headroom in the cockpit), since having a spar strong enough to support the entire length of the wing requires thicker, stronger, and heavier metal throughout the entire length of the wing (from wingtip to wingtip).  The strut simply attaches to the fuselage (usually in front of and near the bottom of the cockpit door) and the wing itself, somewhere about 1/3 of the way out or so from the fuselage.

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The propeller is out on the nose of the aircraft, in front of the engine.  It spins around (clockwise if you are looking at it from inside the cockpit), and generates thrust, which “propels” the aircraft forward – hence its name. Think of it as a rotating wing, because, well, that’s actually what it is. Not shown in the images, but see the picture below.

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The spinner is the cone-shaped cover in the center of the propeller.  It reduces drag and protects the hub at the center of the propeller.

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This is just another term for the engine. It produces power to turn the propeller and create electricity to charge the battery and run the electronic instruments and communication / navigation (com/nav) radios.


The cowl is the part of the fuselage that covers the engine. Think of it like the hood of your car, only for your airplane. Also called “cowling.”

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Most airplanes have a “rotating beacon” (actually, these days it is usually a flashing beacon), that is simply a red light – usually at the top of the vertical stabilizer – that flashes, pulses, or blinks. The beacon is the first electric device turned on before starting the engine and the last one turned off after shutting down the engine. Pilots and “in the know” airport visitors see a flashing beacon as a warning that an airplane is about to start its engine or move on the tarmac.  There are a few other lights on an airplane, including wingtip strobes, navigation (nav) lights – also on the wingtips – and the back of the empennage, landing lights & taxi lights, etc.

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These are the parts of an airplane that you will need to know. Knowing these terms will help you make sense of upcoming lessons and information. It will also make it easier for you to decipher the language a pilot speaks. There are other, smaller parts that you will learn more deeply as you continue through your training. All these terms may seem like a lot to learn. I promise that learning them, using them, and hearing them will make you fluent in “pilotspeak.”

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Smart Flight Training Ground School

So you want to start taking flight lessons to learn to fly and officially become a pilot?

Good for you!  There are about 617,128 active pilots in the United States, which is about 0.2% of the US population - that's ZERO POINT TWO percent, or two out of every thousand people in the country.

It's a very exclusive club.

Exclusive Club

And it's a club that is open to everyone who is willing to take the time and put in the work to earn the right to join.

Smart Flight Training is here to make your flight training journey as enjoyable as possible, and to make sure it gets done right for you, right from the start.

Becoming a pilot is not simple. It is not easy. What it is, however, is fun. It's challenging. It's confidence-building. And it's something that very few people can say they have done.

So let's talk about what it takes to learn to fly and become a pilot.

Ground School & Knowledge

Ground School

There is a LOT to learn when you start to learn to fly, and there are a lot of ways to get the knowledge you need:

  • Structured Ground School Class
  • One-on-one with your flight instructor
  • Self-study

Each of these has pros and cons.

For instance, one-on-one ground training with your flight instructor is personalized and thorough, but it takes a lot of time and gets very expensive (you pay your instructor by the hour, usually).  Additionally, many flight instructors don't like to do ground training - flight instructors like to fly!  There are exceptions, of course, and you will always do SOME ground training with your instructor, but there are better, more efficient (and less expensive!) ways to get the knowledge you need!

Self-study seems like it might be a way to save a lot of money while obtaining the knowledge the Federal Aviation Administration requires of all pilots, and in a way, it is; however, you don't have an instructor to answer your specific questions, and you may think you have understood something correctly when you have actually misunderstood. These misunderstandings mean your flight instructor has to not only teach you the correct understanding, but "un-teach" the misunderstanding. This, again, adds time and cost to your training.

A structured ground school class offers you the best of both worlds - you get the knowledge you need (there will be assignments and things to study on your own), but while you are in class, you also get the expertise of a flight or ground instructor - someone who understands the material and knows it well - who can explain it to you before a potential misunderstanding of the concepts and subject matter takes hold. This ensures that you understand it right the first time. But you also have to attend the classes when they are scheduled - and that just simply doesn't work for most busy people.

Smart Flight Training offers the best of all the above - our ground school offers you the ability to self-study on your schedule, but also have access to a certified flight instructor on a regular basis to answer your questions, clear up any confusion, and make sure you "get it." This makes your (expensive) time with your flight instructor go much more smoothly, saving you time and money, and getting you in the air more quickly - which is really the goal here, right?

Smart Flight Training's ground School covers everything you need for both knowledge and skill - not just what you need to know, but also how to apply it all - and how it all relates and correlates to everything else you need to learn. And sometimes, it'll teach a little about life and not just flying, too.

For ground school knowledge, your modules include:

  • Airplane Systems
  • Principles of Aerodynamics
  • The Flight Environment
  • Aviation Communication
  • Aviation Meteorology
  • FAA Regulations
  • Weather Data Sources and Interpretation
  • Aircraft Performance
  • Navigation
  • Principles of Human Factors & Physiology
  • Cross-Country Flying

Flight Training

Flight Training

Flight Training is where the rubber meets the road, so to say. I guess more accurately, it's where the rubber leaves the pavement.

Smart Flight Training's ground school can't take care of the actual flying that you have to do to learn to fly, but we won't leave you in the dark for that part of your training, either.

Throughout the ground school modules, there will also be information about the maneuvers you will learn with you own flight instructor. This information will be written, images, audio, and video explaining what you will learn, what it will feel like, what it will look like, and what to expect when you go up with your instructor and practice.

This will prepare you for the real thing by taking away any question of what is happening to the airplane and what you will do during these maneuvers. Your instructor will explain them in his or her own way before the flight, too, but when you are prepared in every way possible, your apprehension is at a minimum, and you can concentrate on flying the airplane and learning how to make it do what you want it to do, instead of just being along for the ride the first few times before figuring it all out.

Again, this saves you time and money, and gets you to your end goal of becoming a pilot sooner.

Examples of maneuvers that you will see demonstrated and learn about during the ground school sessions include:

  • Steep Turns
  • Stalls (both power-off stalls and power-on stalls)
  • Ground Reference Maneuvers
  • Performance Take-offs and Landings
  • Unusual Attitudes
  • Night Flight
  • Emergency Descents
  • and more...

What to Expect on the Checkride


All of the above, including the time you spend with your flight instructor in the air, will prepare you thouroughly for your written test (now known as the knowledge test) and your checkride with an FAA examiner.

The knowledge test is taken at a designated knowledge testing facility (lasergrade and CATS have locations all over the country), and if you have completed all the lessons in the ground school, Smart Flight Training guarantees that you will pass the first time, or we pay for your retest.

Your checkride will consist of knowledge questions during an oral portion, which will include items the examiner saw that you missed on the written test / knowledge test. You will also accomplish a practical portion during the checkride, where you fly with the examiner and demonstrate your mastery of the aircraft and the maneuvers you have learned with your flight instructor.

Here again, if you fail a checkride based on your knowledge during the oral portion of your checkride, Smart Flight Training will pay your retest fee.  Since we did not fly with you, however, we can't offer a guarantee on the practical portion of your checkride.  Talk to your instructor about that!

Smart Flight Training's Online Ground School

Smart Flight Training Ground School

Smart Flight Training's ground school is still under construction at the moment, but if you are interested in learning more or getting on our waiting list, please enter your name and email below to get on the waiting list!  If you are on the waiting list before we launch, you will be able to get our training at 50% off (this will save you at least $100)!



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The Medical Saga – Let’s Go Flying!

Medical: Approved

Well, I am once again a legal pilot; the FAA Medical Division approved my request when I sent in new lab results approximately 60 days after the deferral.

What this means is I now have to "catch up" on anything else that has lapsed since the deferral occurred - including my Flight Review (which came due why the deferral was happening), and my Part 141 Standardization for one of the flight schools where I instruct.

I'll post more about the process and exactly what occurred and more, but I just wanted to announce that I can once again strap on my wings!



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4 Lessons from a Deferred Medical

Well, I've hung up my headset.

At least for the time being. You see, I've had my medical deferred.

Yup - I got a deferred medical due to hypothyroidism, meaning my thyroid gland does not work as well as it should, and I have to take a daily pill to keep my metabolism and other functions up to speed.

AME Clipboard

My Deferred Medical Story Begins

A not awesome combination of factors collided to cause this deferred medical situation - most of which were my own fault. I had been on the same dose of the medicine I take for hypothyroidism - levothyroxine 112mcg - for several years with no change, so I assumed all was well before my medical came due in July. I also procrastinated on scheduling my medical appointment, so that I ended up going in early in August, after my medical had expired. I can't blame anyone but myself for that. Oh, yeah - I also had not gone in to see my eye doctor in over a year - again - my prescription had not changed in several years.

So when I went in to the Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) for my appointment, I was unprepared to leave with a deferred medical... I had always gotten it without any problems before. Last time, shortly after my hypothyroism diagnosis, I even got a first-class medical, with no info from my doctor or anything regarding the diagnosis. I feel like I should mention that for convenience, I went to a different AME this time, (I work about 10 minutes from the new AME, but at least 30 minutes from the old one).

Let me also add that, only about two weeks prior to my medical appointment, I had my blood drawn to check my thyroid levels at my family physician - and my prescription did need to change. I guess that was my first indication that we might have a problem.

And a problem we did have. I left the AME with a deferred medical and instructions to get a letter from my family physician that included specific information and wording regarding my hypothyroid condition, and to include a copy of my most recent (within the past 90 days) labs. Since my thyroid was out of "normal" range (hence my dosage changing), the AME couldn't approve my medical there, we had to defer to the FAA (gulp). Additionally, my vision was not 20/20, so I had to do a third class and not a second class medical. Fortunately, I can continue to instruct with a third class medical, once I get approval from the FAA.

So third class medical, deferred to the FAA's Office of Aeospace Medicine. The AME told me to expect a letter from the FAA in a couple of weeks, telling me what I need to submit to them to receive my medical - most likely it would be a continuance of the deferred medical for up to 30 days to give time to prove my thyroid is back in normal range. As long as I keep in touch with the FAA Aeromedical Division - in writing - the deferral can be continued if necessary. This is good, since thyroid medication can take up to six weeks to really take effect, and there is no guarantee that my new dose will be correct initially - it may need to be raised again after my next blood draw and lab results.

Worst-case scenario, I was told, would be that I would be notified that I have to do a special issuance now - and the communication from the FAA will include numerous other bits of medical information and tests that I will have to supply to them. I'm still waiting to hear which it will be...

Now What?

Leaving the AME's office in a sort of daze, my mind immediately flipped to "What happens to my students now that I have a deferred medical?"

I currently only have three active students, so it's not as if I have many to find new instructors for, but will other instructors have the time and capacity to take my students on, at whatever level they are at now? I had one student who had just soloed, one who was probably going to solo on our next lesson, and one who was still just starting and very early on.

Fortunately, aviation people are awesome, and there was no problem finding good instructors who I trust to take my students. I happened to be teaching a Discover Aviation course the following weekend at The Ohio State University, so I asked my two OSU Flight Training Clinic students to come to that class so we could talk before &/or after the class.

My newest student requested the instructor who had taught her ground school, and he was able to take her, so that worked out very well. My student nearly ready to solo was taken on by another Flight Training Clinic instructor as well, so they were covered. My student at Capital City Jet Center at Bolton Field airport (KTZR) was taken on by another fantastic instructor there, so it did not take long before all my students were covered by new instructors.

I do fully expect to get my medical back, and I do want my students back, as I really feel that I have a connection with my current students. Naturally, I told all of my students that I would love to have them back once my deferred medical is re-issued, but that I would not be offended if they chose to stay with their new instructors instead.

So this medical situation was doubly painful, as not only do I not get to fly, I also don't get to see my students for the time being!

Important Lessons

Oh my goodness, there are just so many things to learn here. PLEASE PLEASE learn from my mistakes and don't make them on your own. It is depressing and scary and nerve-wracking.

Lesson 1: Know whether any medical condition you have might affect your medical certification.

I should have taken advantage of AOPA's medical service to find out whether my hypothyroidism might be an issue. If you have any kind of medical issue or take a prescription of any kind regularly, KNOW WHETHER IT WILL AFFECT YOUR MEDICAL APPLICATION. Once you know, you can continue to follow up on it and do your best to make sure all is in order when you visit your AME to renew your medical.

If I had it to do over, I would have had my blood draw and labs done with my family doctor at least 90 days prior to visiting my AME. That way I would have known earlier that my labs were out of bounds, and would have had a little bit of time to get it corrected and possibly have avoided the whole deferred medical situation.

Lesson 2: Don't wait until the last minute to schedule your appointment with your Aviation Medical Examiner.

I am still kicking myself for waiting until mid-July to schedule with my AME when my medical expired at the end of the same month. I told myself that it would all be fine, since nothing had changed since my last medical. I told myself that it was silly to renew before the month it was due in - that would be like losing months and money in paying for it early, and hence allowing it to expire earlier. Is that logical? I sure am paying for it now by losing students, pay, and even the ability for me to fly myself at all. Ugh.

Lesson 3: Don't fall behind on ANY Of your medical appointments.

Just get yourself in the habit of always staying up-to-date on your medical stuff. Get your eyes checked yearly. See your family doctor for a basic checkup at least once per year. Go to the dentist every six months (whether you floss or not). Just KEEP UP WITH IT! It will give you an earlier indication of whether there might be an issue, and you can start researching and fixing whatever might come up before it causes a deferred medical, a special issuance, or worse - a denied medical!

Life After Flight

It can't be helped, I beleive, to start thinking about what you might do as a pilot if you all of a sudden can't fly anymore for some reason.

That was the second thing that started running through my head - after worrying about getting my students covered - "What am I going to do with myself if I can't legally fly anymore?"

I would continue to instruct, though it would be in simulators and doing ground schools. I would also hold myself out to commercial students, since they would be legal to fly as PIC, I could still instruct them, and be able to get in the air. Also, I hope that I have made some good friends in aviation over the years who might be willing to suffer me in an extra seat once in awhile.

I might get into RC flying. I might try ultralights or hot air baloons or gliders. I might try hang gliding. I might attach helium baloons to a lawn chair. I might spend more time on Flight Simulator X.

I WILL spend more time with my family and less time at the airport. I will learn to do some computer / website programming. I'll do some more internet business work a la Pat Flynn and Jason & Jeremy of Internet Business Mastery. I'll learn more about copywriting and do some of that on the side.

Youngest Daughter

Where my time will go while I'm not flying...

The point is, I'll live. I'll stay involved in aviation as I am able to, but I'll do some other things I am interested in, too.

Lesson 4: Have other interests!

If your entire life is focused on aviation, it can be incredibly depressing and frightening when aviation is taken away from you by a deferred medical (or, god forbid, a denied medical). Cultivate some other passions and interests, and - as they would say in investing circles - diversify. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Create a backup plan.

I'm lucky - I have a 9-5 job that is in aviation, and I instruct on evenings and weekends. It is not the end of the world for me to have a deferred medical. And while I fully intend to get it back - and I honestly believe that I will - this has been eye opening for me as a process and as a possibility.

Moving Forward

This thread will continue, as I hope to interview some people who have had deferred medical issues and have beaten them and ended up getting their medical, as well as some people who have lost their medicals and have survived and thrived. If you are one of those people and want to tell your story, please let me know. The great folks who make up the Blogging in Formation team have offered a few names of people who might be interested, but I'd like to hear from anyone else who reads this and has some input or a point of view on this to please speak up in the comments or contact me so we can talk and I can keep this discussion going!

Andrew Hartley IS a certificated flight instructor and commercial pilot in Columbus, Ohio. He WAS medically certified until this month. He WILL be medically certified again - whatever it takes.

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