Transgender Pilot Regains Her Wings

Edge Publication Story by Renee Baker, June 20, 2008.

Jamy Spradlin

Within two hours of coming out as transgendered to her Human Resources department, corporate jet pilot Jamy Spradlin was put on paid administrative leave. To make matters worse, the Federal Aviation Administration delayed renewing her license to fly for nearly a year while they evaluated her psyche for stability after beginning hormone replacement therapy.

Spradlin is 41 years old now, though she grew up as a biological male. She loves to fly. It’s in her soul and her passion, she says. “I’ve been flying since I was 16. I got bit by the flying bug and have to do it.” She says it brings her great peace and great freedom, and she loves to share that with other people.

But her former Dallas-based corporation said no, they did not want a transgender woman flying their executives around the country. Instead of asking how they could help her transition to female, the corporation’s lawyer asked her, “How can we help you transition – away from the company?” Spradlin does not wish to disclose the name of the corporation.

Within four days of her coming out in March of 2006, the company asked Spradlin to tender her resignation. Because she was not in a financial position to fight a legal battle, she agreed to a settlement. Almost a year after being fired, Spradlin was ready to fly again, but her FAA medical certificate had lapsed. Getting that certificate reinstated has taken nearly another year, since last June. It should only have taken two hours as it had in the past, just like a driver’s license. “All of this is because I started taking estrogen,” she says.

Spradlin went to see her FAA-approved medical examiner, Dr. Gabriel Fried, M.D., in Dallas. Though she passed her First Class medical examination otherwise, when she told the examiner she was taking estrogen, Dr. Fried required two additional things: a letter from her licensed counselor describing her mental stability, and a letter from her family practitioner describing her hormone usage.

The details of what Spradlin went through to get her medical certificate back almost requires a flow chart to understand. But the FAA thinks otherwise: Les Dorr, FAA spokesperson in Washington DC, maintains that “nothing happens” when you come out as transgendered to the FAA.
Dorr says it is up to the individual medical examiner to determine whether pilots are fit to fly, but says that transgender people undergoing hormone treatment have “potentially associated medical psychiatric conditions.” However, Dorr also says FAA chief psychiatrist Charles Chesanow is not aware of any transgender pilot that has ever been denied getting a license, nor of one that has ever lost a license.

Though Dorr says the FAA leaves testing up to the medical examiner, the FAA required Spradlin to undergo extensive psychological evaluation, costing her $1400. In addition, Spradlin had to provide the FAA with a copy of her counselor’s therapeutic session notes. Spradlin says she is not aware of any non-transgender female pilots that have had to undergo such stringent evaluation when they began taking hormone replacement therapy.

Spradlin believes the system is a mess. “The whole process was utterly frustrating,” she says. “No one wanted to take responsibility.” She says that most of the issues that came up were due to “lack of communication” and “lack of understanding”. She believes that while she wasn’t personally discriminated against, the system unfairly assumes that transgender people are cognitively dysfunctional until proven otherwise. “They really didn’t have a clue, but I don’t blame them for not knowing what to do.”

Still, Spradlin remains optimistic that the FAA will eventually get it right. “You gotta laugh about it,” she says. There was a lesson in all of this, she explains, and that is patience. Even as she was a day away from getting the needed medical certificate in the end, the assigned physician granting her a medical certificate had a heart attack, causing another three week delay.

After two years of being grounded, Spradlin now has her medical certificate in hand and expects to find an industrial pilot position in the near future. She lives in Plano, Texas and is an active volunteer in the GLBT community and in her church. She is happy to have her wings back.

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