Federal officials are probing roughly 5,000 pilots suspected of withholding major health issues, per The Washington Post.
Veterans Affairs investigators stumbled on the health record inconsistencies over two years ago.
Some veterans who have been temporarily grounded feel as though they're being singled out.
Federal authorities have been probing roughly 5,000 pilots who officials believe may have falsified their medical records to hide that they were earning benefits for significant health issues that could imperil their ability to fly safely, The Washington Post reported.
The pilots who have had their records examined are military veterans who informed the Federal Aviation Administration that they were suitable to fly, but didn't disclose that they were also receiving veterans benefits for various disabilities that could prevent them from effectively sitting in a pilot's seat.
Veterans Affairs investigators stumbled on the record inconsistencies over two years ago, but the FAA had not publicly disclosed many aspects of the investigation, according to The Post.
FAA spokesman Matthew Lehner told The Post that the agency had been probing around 4,800 pilots "who might have submitted incorrect or false information as part of their medical applications" and indicated that roughly half of the cases were closed. The spokesman also said 60 pilots who "posed a clear danger to aviation safety" were — for the moment — barred from the cockpit while their records were being looked over by officials.
Nearly 600 of the pilots who are being probed have licenses to fly the general public on passenger airlines, according to individuals with knowledge of the cases who spoke to The Post.
Many of the other pilots possess commercial licenses, which gives them ability to be hired to fly for a range of clients.
Pilots have to pass regular health screenings, but according to The Post, the tests are often not always comprehensive. And the FAA is reliant on pilots disclosing conditions that officials may not be able to pinpoint, including depression or post-traumatic stress, according to doctors who spoke to the newspaper and oversee the exams.
According to The Post, some veterans have downplayed their health conditions to the FAA in efforts to retain their eligibility to fly, while also inflating the severity their health conditions to the Veterans Administration in order to boost their disability payments.
Thousands of pilots may be risks to the 'flying public'
The Post obtained records that reveal the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine since last year has set aside $3.6 million to bring onboard medical staffers to conduct additional reviews of certification records for 5,000 pilots who might present "potential risks to the flying public."
Officials at the Department of Transportation declined to comment to The Post regarding the report.
"The FAA used a risk-based approach to identify veterans whose medical conditions posed the greatest risk to safety and instructed them to cease flying while the agency reviews their cases," the FAA's Lehner said in a statement. "The vast majority of these pilots may continue to operate safely while we complete the reconciliation process."
In some of the closed cases, pilots have been told to resubmit more accurate records and sit for new health exams, while some have been unable to fly until they're cleared by the FAA, according to Lehner and lawyers for affected pilots.
And the VA inspector general's office is now probing some of the 4,800 pilots and will look into whether the Department of Justice should be involved in individual cases regarding potential benefits fraud, according to two individuals who knowledge of the subject who spoke with The Post.
For two decades, the FAA has been aware that thousands of pilots may have been flying with significant health ailments, but transportation officials pushed back against calls for more substantial background checks for pilots, according to The Post.
The FAA review has also brought about an array of criticism from military veterans who feel as though the probes haven't been applied equally.
"If they're going to shine a light on veterans, they need to shine a light everywhere," former Army pilot Rick Mangini told The Post.
Mangini has been unable to fly for his position at a cargo company after his medical certificate lapsed last month; he had not revealed a sleep apnea condition, for which he received benefits from the VA.
While Mangini disclosed on his application that he was receiving disability benefits, he told The Post that he didn't know he had to detail his condition.
"I know of a lot of pilots who have told me about [medical conditions] they aren't telling the FAA about," he said. "What they're doing to veterans? That's the definition of harassment."
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