Too Old to Fly?

Courtesy: Lifehack.org

How old is too old to fly? The question is in the news again because the pilot flying the Piper Cherokee 180 that crashed in Arkansas last week killing two popular women’s basketball coaches from Oklahoma State University was 82 years old.

Almost nothing is known about the circumstances of the accident. The weather was good VFR, the pilot had decades’ worth of total experience and extensive time in the accident airplane, and preliminary reports do not indicate any distress calls to controllers. The pilot was certified for the flight, and had a current medical certificate. 

Eyewitnesses reported seeing the airplane headed essentially straight down, and the wreckage pattern apparently confirms that.

Without any indication so far of what might have caused the crash the news media has invariably included the age of the pilot in its reports. I haven’t seen any reporters saying the accident was caused by the age of the pilot, but you can bet if the person had been 52 instead of 82 his age would not have been mentioned.

The good news is that there is no age limit on acting as pilot in command when flying for your own personal or business reasons. The bad news is that we know absolutely nothing specific about safety record of older pilots, whatever “older” means.

The missing link in any meaningful safety study of pilot age is that we simply don’t know exposure. We can count accidents that make it into the NTSB database and know how many pilots in specific age groups were involved. But we don’t know anything for sure about exposure. How many pilots in an age group flew actively in what period of years or months? We don’t know. And we for sure don’t know how many hours were flown, in what conditions, and in what type of aircraft.

The United Flying Octogenarians association has around 1,000 members and is growing. To qualify for membership you must have actually flown an aircraft in the past year and be at least 80 years old. We know that more older pilots are remaining active.

The entire pilot population is aging with people holding ATP certificates – the most experienced pilots – leading the way with an average age right at 50. Private pilots are younger with an average age in the last FAA report of just under 48, but student pilots average at least 33 years of age. Flying is no longer a young person’s activity.

My friends in the aviation insurance business tell me they have no reliable data on how pilot age affects risk. Many underwriters increase premiums for pilots at some age – 70 or 75 for example – but that is really based on a hunch, not significant data.

The Cherokee crash in Arkansas was clearly caused by a loss of control, but we don’t know now, and may never know for sure, why control was lost. But loss of control accidents happen to pilots of all ages in general aviation regularly and we have no evidence that the pilot’s age is a factor in any of the accidents.

It is vital that EAA and AOPA continue to defend the right of pilots of any age to fly because there is absolutely no accident data to support an age restriction. When the FAA was forced by Congress to defend its age 60 limit for scheduled airline pilots based on safety data, or even health studies, the FAA couldn’t do it. There is no evidence a 65-year-old captain is any less safe than one who is 59.

The studies focused on differences between age 60 and 65 because that was the range of ages being considered for the new airline pilot cutoff, but the studies could have been extended to any upper age without reaching concrete conclusions because data doesn’t exist. All of us know that age changes our physical and mental capabilities but there is no way to link those changes to a specific chronological age, or to what skills and abilities one needs to fly safely.

What remains for pilots has always been the issue – personal responsibility. Each of us is the only one who can know when it’s time to not fly as single pilot anymore. And it will happen at different ages for all of us. Every older pilot I know and respect tells me the same thing, that they just knew it was time to change the way they fly. Maybe it is not flying at night, or in the clouds, or with passengers, or whatever way a pilot changes his flying with age; it is a personal recognition of a change in his comfort zone.

I’m now 62 and can finally understand what lies ahead if my health holds out. I now notice that flying or driving at night takes more concentration and caution, something that I scoffed at when I heard older people talk about it just a few years ago. I am now more willing to cancel a flight if the weather is terrible, or just plain miserable. I have nothing left to prove to myself. And I am certain that in the years to come I will add more flying tasks to the list that I just don’t need or want to do anymore.

But what I can’t predict is at what calendar age I will change my behavior. And neither can you, or the FAA, or anybody else. Knowing when to throttle back is the ultimate personal responsibility and it is, and must continue to be, left for each of us to decide.

This entry was posted in Airmanship, Flying for Fun, Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog, Safety. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Too Old to Fly?

  1. Kenneth Quick says:

    Here here Mac. Personal responsibility is the key. We each age differently and only the pilot knows when he needs to adjust his flying to his ability. I have a friend 84 years young who still fly’s with great skill and judgement. He chose to retire from flight instructing on his 80th birthday not because he could not do it. He continued to be one of the best instructors I have worked with in my 40 year career including the Boeing instructor who trained me for the 757/767 type rating. He simply felt he needed to make a cutoff somewhere. Now he chooses to fly only with another qualified pilot, his decision, the sign of a pilot making a responsible judgement based on his analysis of the situation, erring if he does, on the side of caution.

  2. There is way too much variability from one person to another for any blanket age cutoff to make sense. The arguments against an “age-whatever rule” are identical to the arguments I’ve made a zillion times for why euthanizing aircraft engines at some fixed TBO is a ridiculous concept, totally unsupported by data. Each pilot, like each engine, needs to be dealt with “on-condition” because every one is different.

    Statistical mortality and morbidity data is useful if you’re an insurance company actuary or an estate planner, but it’s useless if you’re an emergency room physician. Such data may be helpful for strategic planning (like whether to charge higher premiums for older pilots), but it’s useless and inappropriate for tactical decision making (like when to stop flying as PIC).

  3. Jim Gombold says:

    My son sent me a photo of a gentleman getting an LSA rating at 103 years of age. I told him I was going to get my rating at 104. :)

  4. Don Thomas says:

    I am 80 now and still flying, but I haven’t carried a passenger that did not know how to fly since I turned 70. Just seems reasonable not to risk a friends life.

  5. John Lines says:

    Great comments all; but having said that, it is unfortunate that the FAA will most likely get involved, and one can only guess the results after that.

  6. Don Griffith - CFII, ATP, Mech says:

    Turned 80 6 months ago and sold my P210 this month. 2 reasons: 1) not flying as much and $ when not used, 2) Not as comfortable tho my health/physical is OK. Dr. asked if I wanted a Class2! Am bound and determined not to create a problem for other folks so we’ll see how it goes from here. 4700 Hr. CFII, ATP and Mechanic ratings. Really don’t need a Dr. to tell me when to quit so dump the Class 3 physicals.

  7. Mike says:

    Does anyone know for sure if he was flying. His wife was also a pilot. How old was she.
    Something was strange here. Clear conditions, no emergency call, plane coming straight down out of control. The coroner’s report will be interesting information. Carbon monoxide comes to mind…….If he had an age related problem, why didn’t his wife take over. Lots to find out, none of which points to age. Not even the FAA can say it happened because they were both too old, right?
    Mike

  8. Dennis Vied says:

    I have to chime in here that I think there is interest in the FAA medical section for accumulating data on aging and flying. I am a 73 year old ATP/CFII and still hold a First Class medical. I’m just speculating here, but my experience in the last few years with this process is that the FAA seems to want to keep older people on the rolls so they can accumulate the data. It really doesn’t do anyone any good to lose otherwise healthy people out of the database just because they are old, and it seems to me the FAA medical section realizes it. I have had a continuous First Class medical history with the FAA for the last 48 years, and that’s got to be valuable information for this process. I think they should go a step further and raise the Part 121 age again. That’s the best way to collect medical activity data, allow them to be active.

  9. Bryant Pearson says:

    I am turning 75 soon and have been flying since 1960. I hold a 2nd class medical special authorization. I have AP SEL MEL INST CFII R/C A&P IA and had a Ag flying & 135 ops for some time. I am now hesitating taking my grandchildren or others that can’t land the aircraft. My wife is not a pilot but I taught her to land. My skills are still good and I work out everyday to stay in good shape but now I can’t stand the thought of something happening to me with unskilled people aboard.

  10. Tom Herbert says:

    I am 84 years old and, after a fifty year hiatus, began flying again. I own an Arion Lightning LS1 and fly it whenever the weather allows. My age has not been a factor and my CFI turned me loose after 17 hours of dual transition in the new plane. Am I special? Nope…just lucky. I know time is running out for me, but I’m sure that when the time comes I will know it. When the cross winds become unmanigable and the thrashing around on final in a light airplane fighting the bumps becomes a burden rather than a challenge, I will fade away thanking my lucky stars for these last few years of flight. But don’t count me out solely because I’m older than dirt. Age truly is just a number for a very fortunate few.

  11. Mac says:

    Thanks, everyone for great comments. You are the pilots I know and respect who want to keep flying, but do not want to put anyone, particularly our loved ones, at an unreasonable risk. Nobody can predict how age will impact any individual so we must be aware and decide for ourselves, and I am so pleased to hear that is exactly what pilots are doing.

    Mac Mc

  12. Col USAF (ret) Herbeert K. Sloane says:

    I just celebrated my 97th birthday flying my LSP Ercoupe around the pattern and can understand the concern which aging pilots, as well as the public generally, feel about continuing to aviate so late in life. Flying is something I’ve been doing since 1938 and I sincerely feel that the restrictions inherent in the LSA rule, plus application of some common sense, will determine when its time to quit. I know of no mortal “rule of thumb” which can dictate longevity or how to safely utilize the time left to me.

    • Harry Gresham says:

      I could not agree more with Col. Sloane. I’m 87; just passed 70 years since 1942 solo. Flying continuosly for B&P, mostly business. Army Air Corps 1943-46.
      I just sort of eased into the idea that I don’t really need to fly nights, hard IFR
      anymore – I am retired now. Flying, if just around the pattern, is still wonderful.
      I have survived without ever putting so much as s scratch on an airplane and an airplane has never put a scratch on me…er, except that time I walked into
      the trailing edge of a Cessna 150 wing… I was embarassingly young, then….

  13. Paul Favreau says:

    Love my flying,but had to have left hip replaced,at77 yrs and over 1000 hrs of flying, I will not fly without an other pilot, just makes sense-saftey first-buddy

  14. Bill Corley says:

    My dad just wrote a check for the down payment on his next aircraft, a light sport, now that he’s 84. He knows what makes his own life worth living. Me too.

  15. Brian Appaswamy says:

    I quite agree. I plan on voluntarily giving up flying shortly after I retire at 65. What I mean by that is; no more flying after about 67 or so. I’ve had this thought process for a long time, and still think along those lines at 51. In my opinion, it is insane to take the controls of a plane after 70, let alone fly past the age of 80. As others have mentioned, good judgement must be exercised while the mind is still capable of doing so. The human body is frail, and will unquestionably weaken with age. Things that were easy at 55, will no longer be so at 70 and even worse at 80. Like it or not, the North American life expectancy is approximately 80. I realize that a few of us live past 100. But for the vast majority of us, the end is nearing at 80. Common sense needs to prevail here. Not only are you dangerous to yourself and the occupants of the plane you are flying as an old man or woman at the controls, but you also needlessly endanger the lives of unsuspecting victims in populated, urban and built up areas on the ground. Let the young people do the flying. Hang out at the airport, and hangar fly with your buddies, and I bet from time to time, some benevolent young soul will kindly offer you a right-seat ride just for the fun of it. So what is so wrong with that!

  16. Funk Pilot says:

    I follow two guys up to Blakesburg Ia. and Brodhead Wi. every year Now both are in there 80′s and one is flying a plane that is 82. Both are very competent and clearly know any limitations, but I listen to them at every turn (I have over 22,000 hrs) as they are living text books on how to do it. I am now 65 and my friends I have been flying with for most of 40 + yrs are all joining me along the road of life . If age stops us there will be many fewer “fly-ins” to enjoy and fewer folks to support GA along the way. The PC crowd will grab this one and lack of experience and knowledge will kill it for many!

  17. RMBrann says:

    To Brian A.
    Will you also stop driving a car?
    I am 82 yrs old, fly a Sport Cruiser since selling a Bonanza two yrs ago.
    I plan to continue flying until I feel it is a risk to me or others.
    I remember meeting Johnny Miller when he flew his Bonanza into our airpark at age 97.
    He was quite capable.

  18. Eugene says:

    The older guys sticking to flying all have a good judgement- due to the alloy of their long life in aviation and love to sky. The life experience serves as the best guarantee to prevent the thoutless step. We all were filtered through the net of emergencies and often-of our own wrong actions. Luckily stay alive. Have been knowing that older people in your country are not restricted to fly due to age keeps my spirit high. Tom Korzeniowski and Tom Herbert-you sound the best way for my heart. Thank you guys.
    I am young boy-just 66. This April failed to pass medical for transport test-pilot-just because of slightly hobbling right leg although all my other medical multiple tests were good. The main cause was my age. In Russia the pilot-doctor relation differ so you are lucky dogs to live and fly in your great country. I also hold the commercial and inctrument rating earned in far 1998 at Galvin’s,BFI. Last summer,I was flying with my old flight instructor Joe Bennett-he is 80- to San Juan Islands-and became current again!
    Half month ago,I made call to him and knew that he is out of instruction business now but cofirmed we’d fly together someday yet! Now I spend hours at FSX but the hope to fly real birds is stil alive.

  19. Warwick Llewellyn says:

    I am 71 years old and have been flying since 1960. I have a current medical and do not think health will make me quit flying anytime soon. One factor for older pilots quitting may be economics. I have built two airplanes and been a partner in another to try to afford to fly. Now in retirement I don’t have the available financial resources to fly (rent) enough to feel current. There may come a day when I say it is just not worth it.

  20. george Fulenwider says:

    Just turned 80 this year & plan on getting my Light Sports Ticket this summer..I have an Avid Flyer with a speed wing….Blue Skies..

  21. Col USAF (ret) Herbert K. Sloane says:

    Brian, I have a notion that when you reach 70, which is still some time away, that you’ll have a change of heart about continuing as an active pilot. Your comment about “it is insane, etc …” falls on rather deaf ears when consideration is given to the FAA mandate that airline pilots can still fly passengers until age 65. What are they supposed to do with all that experience after that? Ive been a member of the United Flying Octogenarians for 17 years whose membership requires age 80 and still be flying. At least half of its almost 1000 members still fly, and fly safely! Have you read and government accident reports where age was determined to have been the cause
    of an aircraft fatality or injury? ….. I haven’t, and I read ‘em all! “Things” may get a bit harder with age, Brian, but “growing up” evens the playing field … cautious decisons, patience, experience, and determination to do the right things for self and others, are the factors which advancing years bring into the equation, not actuarial statistics or naysayers dire predictions.

    • Brian Appaswamy says:

      You make some very good points Colonel. In all candor, in spite of what I wrote in my last post, I have also wondered how I would feel about the whole matter as I get closer to my self imposed ‘quitting time’. As a kinder and gentler man in my middle age, I feel compelled to say nothing but the best of luck and all good fortune to you and others who are still active fliers. And yet, I worry. You see, logic tells me, that the human body is continuously, from start to finish, in a constant state of deterioration. So by the time we all get to 70 and beyond, I have no choice but to reason that all bets are off at this point, and that the end is imminent. If at all possible, I’d like for that inevitable end to not occur while I am in the plane, 3000 feet over a densely populated, beautiful British Columbia city or an isolated valley for that matter. I fly about 65 to 75 hours a year, which then, on average gets me up in the plane a little more than about an hour or so each week, sometimes more than other weeks, when you consider cross country flights. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up that pace, as I get older. But assuming that I do, that keeps me up in the air quite a lot. So as I age then, and the inevitable end of my life is only getting nearer and nearer, the chances of finding myself in the plane, 3000 feet in the air when that end occurs is unquestionably greater.

      In a sentimental way, in all candor, quite honestly I don’t mind, my end coming to me while I am in the plane. I should be that lucky! But if I am not flying the plane, then the plane has to eventually come down on its own any way. Where will this happen? Perish the thought that this should be in to a very populated area where people are idly busying themselves one idle Tuesday morning, unaware of the horror that is hurtling down towards them to culminate in a carnage of Brian’s blazing glory.

      How do I reconcile this in my head? At least in my neck of the woods, several recent GA accidents have involved people in their 80s. Granted I still don’t know exactly what the cause of most of those accidents were, but at least one a few years ago, I think was determined to be because the gent at the controls passed away shortly after take off, and the Piper Seneca he was flying ended up partially embedded in the side of a tenement building, unceremoniously collapsing much of that floor to the street below. It was a miracle no one else died in that accident except the pilot. Well I digress. But you see my point I am sure.

      Brian.

  22. We all age differently and the things most often attributed to age are actually no respector of age.
    Heart problems, Stroke, Diabetes, mental disorders, and many more can strike at any age including the very young. They are just more prevalent as we age and parts wear out. I’ve only seen a few people who have actually reached the age where their body just wore out and they died of “old age”. Those people were “spry” until their last year or two and then basically everything went. They were all in their late 90′s.

    Genetically “we tend” to, for lack of a better term, “degenerate” much like our ancestors so our family history can be a guide but as we tend to live longer each generation different ailments tend to creep in.

    Now days it’s common to live long enough for disqualifying ailments to sneak up on us while we remain sharp. Some 70 year olds have reflexes that would have been considered good in a 20 year old 5 to 6 decades back, but reflexes and still being sharp do you no good if you have a history of disqualifying ailments that happen without warning.

    Unfortunately many ailments are caused by the way we lived and ate during our youth and subsequent years when we and the medical world didn’t know any better, or we may have a genetic predisposition for (insert name of ailment here)

    So, although age is certainly a factor, it’s different for every one of us. One pilot may fly well into his 80′s (or farther) while others have to quit in their 40′s and 50′s (or younger). Things that were once the end of flying like stroke and heart attacks no longer necessarily mean the end of flying, but like people each one is an individual with different characteristics.

    Although we tend to think our reflexes (and responses) are as good as they were when we were young, it’s we just don’t move as fast. <:-)) It's not that difficult to see the changes as we age. The difficulty is in admitting to ourselves that we are changing.

    Mental health on the other hand is much like being able to determine when we are "under the influence". The farther we go the more difficult it becomes, to realize we are not the same. Over the years, I've seen two pilots who lost their "judgmental ability". The results at times would have been comical had they not been so sad. So, often the onus is on each of us to determine when it is time to hang it up. We just have to be more alert for changes with age, but it doesn't hurt to pay attention to comments from those around us as well.

  23. Gordon Arnaut says:

    Well my hat is off to Colonel Sloane…

    Still flying at 97…good for you sir…and don’t take any guff from any young snappers who think they know better…

    I would not hesitate to go for a hop in your Ercoupe with you at the controls…

  24. Claude Elliott says:

    I learned to fly off a grass strip in a 65hp Champ in 1955 – had to give it up to raise a family while serving 20+ years in the Marine Corps. I found a poor old Tripacer 150 that hadn’t flown in 7-8 years and restored it and then finished my private pilot license in 1988. Had to sell my Tri for financial reasons and was on the ground for several years until my kids bought me a ride in a glider in 2004. The bug bit again big time and I started flying again as a SP – in fact I just bought a Mini-Max for putting around the local area. Two thoughts here: First of all, I won’t be carrying any passengers in my single-seat MiniMax for the same reason that I don’t carry any passengers on my 800 lb., 110 hp Yamaha motorcycle – -I just don’t feel comfortable with passengers any more. Secondly, I’m selfish!! I enjoy the solitude of both flying and riding without distractions! I’ll turn 78 in February and, God willing, will be around for years to come. Like the comfort level thing with my bike, I’ll know when I no longer feel comfortable (and COMPETANT) enough to to be PIC.

  25. Frank D. Szachta says:

    As an 82 & 1/2 year old ATP and CFII pilot I feel safe in my own Mooney and several other model planes. Last spring I checked out a friend in his 1946 Taylorcraft tailwheel plane. is a dicile plane, and after a short check flight to renew my tailwheel currency, I flew my friebnd through six flights to check him out for solo again. It was most enjoyable to retrain him in his plane that he had rebuilt after a forty year barn rest period. I am confident that i will be able to tell when my health ( swim in senior olympics yearly and exercise regulary, to keep up my strength and coordination. My annual Class 2 physical is easy every year, so far. My experience is very useful, and I regularly practice IFR cross country flights. My past experience in airborne radio technician work, in the USAF prior to my USAF Pilot Training courses, served me well.

    I am a member of SAFE, the flight educators org. as well as UFO,s, us United Flying Octogenarians ( Over 80- Pilots).

    Fly Safe

    Frank Szachta

  26. Col USAF (ret) Herbert K. Sloane says:

    Well stated, Brian, and I respect your viewpoint even though I don’t accept your conclusions as being determinative. I can only hope that we’re both right … that my continuing to fly my 60 or 70 hours per year never causes harm to anyone and that your curtailing your aviating at a pre-determined age will not occasion later regrets. It is apparent that you and I share common bonds …. we love aviation and have a high regard for our fellow beings … and that allows us both to claim the title, PILOTS.

    • Brian Appaswamy says:

      ………..Ten hut, ladies and gents! There is a pilot officer on deck! It’s an honor that you would consider, you and I as sharing a common bond along with all our other fellow pilots. I never have served mine or any other country as you have in the military. But yes, I do love to fly. There is literally nothing that puts a smile on my face, even after many years of regular GA flying. Day after day, week after week, flying is one of the most important things I look forward to…….along with seeing my young nieces and nephews and my siblings. It has been an honor to share this space with you Colonel. Blue skies and tail winds to you!

  27. As time goes on people are living healthy lives much longer than those of just a few decades past. We hear about the pilots who suddenly die at the controls, but as we age the odds are far more toward the onset of some illness or disability that will prevent the passing at the controls.

    If you are in your 80′s, still sharp and healthy and piloting airplanes the odds are you won’t pass while functioning as PIC. The odds are it won’t be something sudden and unexpected either. If it’s age related it will likely come with plenty of warning and a slow deterioration of some function either physical or mental that prevents flying. Eyesight, hearing, mobility, balance, are likely to fail as the body wears out. Of course if your BP is 190 over 95 and cholesterol is sky high you shouldn’t be flying anyway, but those numbers are more often associated with some one in their 40′s or 50′s that have a poor diet and live a sedentary life. Those strokes and heart attacks are as likely to strike the 50 or 60 year old pilot as they are the 80 year old. Maybe more so! Yes, it’s counter intuitive, but you only have to look at how people pass (on average) for any given age.

    For those pilots who are still flying in their 80′s, I say more power to them and good luck! May you get at least another decade of flying under your belts.

    As we continue to live longer, healthy lives I fully expect to read about many 90 year old pilots in the future.

    As we age we need to pay more attention to how we feel before we get in the plane, but again there is no specific age that comes with an expiration date.

    We don’t reach some predetermined age (at least not by us) when the expiration date pops up.

    BTW we do not start down hill as soon as we are born. It’s my understanding we reach a peak some where in our 20′s (on average) and then *some* functions begin a very slow deterioration. Average eyesight starts down hill around age 45. I had 20:10 vision until 45 when it went to 20:20. 20:20 scared me. I thought something serious was wrong. You mean the rest of the world considers this good!? I still don’t need glasses for distance and that was a long time ago.

  28. Mac says:

    How about this? Do you see flying–being a pilot–as a task that demands physical skills, eye-hand coordination and such? Or do you see being a pilot as being a system manager who uses his experience to operate a complex machine?

    In transport airplanes–airliners or business jets–the move for the past decades has been to make the pilot a manager of automated systems. The results have been good with a safety record better than most of us had ever imagined to be possible. In the U.S. no major jet airliner has crashed fatally in the last 10 years. Before this period we never made it more than two years.

    Personal airplanes are catching up with ever more capable flight management systems and automatic flight control, and pilots in general aviation can also be system managers more than control manipulators.

    So, I would think that in the system manager role age is no factor, or maybe even an asset because of experience. If the task is one of physical skill then clearly younger people would seem to have an advantage.

    Mac Mc

    • Welll… I see the pilot’s role as both requiring hand eye coordination and a systems manager and it varies widely between aircraft.

      However, I do not see flying most 2 through 6 passenger planes as physically demanding. Skill? Certainly, but skill doesn’t atrophy any faster than our mental capacity and the systems manager certainly needs mental capacity.

      The systems manager approach has left some in the EU a bit upset with the airlines training being a bit skimpy on actual physical skills and stall recovery. One instance quoted was the airliner into the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil a couple years back. So even with the systems manager view the manager has decisions to make on the spur of the moment when not all goes well. His necessary decisions may even contradict the flight management system.

      Ever stall in level flight at cruise? I have and it happened to be on the way to Port Columbus for Bo specific proficiency training. It was a beautiful day with a ride as smooth as glass when I hit a bump. A few seconds later I hit a much harder bump. At that point I immediately pulled the power back to about 17″ and hit the AP disconnect so I was down to around 140-145 when I hit the third bump and found myself looking straight ahead at the ground from 5000 feet. The power was already back so I just eased the nose back up and brought up the power a bit and left it around 19 to 20″ for the expected bumps on “the other side”. I figured I had hit wake turbulence from something that was already well out of sight. I gave it a couple of minutes, went back to cruse and turned the AP back on. It was no biggie. Now think of the pilot who is used to “letting George do it” and relies on the system. Had I not disconnected the AP it would have automatically corrected and brought the plane back to the original altitude, but would it have done so without breaking something? That little tab is mighty powerful…and fairly quick.

      I think we make a mistake when we remove the idea of physical skill being needed with the systems manager (glass) cockpit. I view that like the VFR pilot who relies on their hand held GPS without paying much attention to what’s going on outside. I use GPS, VORs, and even NDBs at times to make sure nobody is lying to me. To me, the “Systems manager” approach can have a much higher mental workload. It’s all too easy to look at that one display where all needed inputs are visible and forget to check it against another independent system.
      It’s too easy to become complacent until something goes wrong. Then that skill set better be up-to-par! <:-))

      So with age, depending on the plane, equipment, and environment I would expect the opposite. If the pilot is proficient I would expect skill to remain high even with age. Today's glass cockpits require proficiency be honed, yet the stick and rudder skills remain high. I believe, typically mental skills are likely to start deteriorating first along with strength while the skill set should pretty well remain.

      I say all this realizing that each person and case are individual and circumstances can vary widely. Whether it's the skill set or mental abilities, if one, the other, or both start to deteriorate it's time to hang it up.

      BTW I've had two engine failures on departure, very close to the airport where it was strictly get it back on the ground with only stick and rudder skills. (and hope there was enough juice in the battery to get the gear down).

  29. Gordon Arnaut says:

    Mac, I would argue that the physical skills necessary to fly a basic small airplane are not much more demanding than other learned physical skills…sailing, riding a bicycle or motorcycle, swimming…etc…

    The exceptions being flying that involves challenging maneuvering such as flight test, aerobatics, firefighting…etc…

    I think even in a bare-bones small plane you are something of a systems manger…you are managing the airplane’s kinetic energy (in 3 dimensions and 6 degrees of freedom) in a constantly shifting mass of fluid that presents its own complex forces…all with just a simple control stick and pedals…

    If we are talking about serious cross-country flight, especially in weather then that is more challenging flying to be sure…here you need the nav and comm and autopilot systems and you need to be skilled in using these…

    But I don’t subscribe to the idea that equipping small airplanes with airliner type electronics is going to make a difference… I think the difference is mostly procedure based and the fact that you have a crew of two…two heads being better…(mostly…)

    I think the stats bear that out…

    When it comes to cross-country flying there is no substitute for judgement…

  30. Gary Fisher says:

    I was originally going to post in defense of older pilots. Being “only” 60, I see that I am one of the younger responders. I was going to point out that when I was 25 – 30, and knew everything, I thought that 55 was “old.” Now that I am looking at that age in the rear view mirror, I see how naive that was. The reason that I don’t need to post a defense of older pilots, is that the Colonel, at “only” 97, did a job far superior to anything that I could have done.

  31. Lee Arnold says:

    I am 84 & one of my doctors doesn’t think I should fly because I could have a heart attack. I asked him how he feels about coming toward me on a 2 lane road with his car passing 16 t0 20 inches from mine with a closing rate in excess of 140 miles per hour. He said it wouldn’t bother him.
    He was replaced like the doctor who says you are not healthy enough for sex.

  32. larry Rachlin says:

    11/28/11 Hello Mac As your insurance broker I say that we really can not determine what skills people have. There are careful people and careless people . Flying is a lot easier that driving and to impute the body breaking down automatically after a certain age is foolish. With today’s medicines today’s 80 are last generations 70.
    I find flying keeps the brain lubricated and tones up life. We can’t give up and wait for the car to the bone yard. My wife and I fly together and it is a damn sight easier that driving the same distance. Larry Rachlin Member of UFO

  33. Cris Bailey says:

    This might be a little off the wall. I wonder what stats would show if we could separate not only by age but also those who spent their first 200 hours operating tailwheel A.C. off turf. The guys/gals whose centered ball and outside scan are as reflexive as breathing. Not a lot of kids in that group.

    • When I took the Bo specific proficiency training at Port Columbus the Instructor asked if I learned to fly in TW aircraft because I always did full stall landings on the mains with the nose way up in the air. Actually I didn’t, but I was taught to do full stall landings because slower is better, easier on the airplane, main gear is rugged for landing, and nose gear is fragile, expensive, and for steering on the ground. So far, at 71 my reaction times are still good, other conditions have me at least temporarily grounded.

    • My primary training and first 350 plus hours were in a 150, 172, and Cherokee 180. Right after solo I was flying the 180 in a 3 way partnership. The instructors taught me to “look outside” and just check the instruments as well as doing full stall landings. By the time I took the practical flight test I no longer had to fly all patterns the same and could land close to where the instructor would tell me. It didn’t matter whether I flew the rectangular pattern or it was just a “slipping u-turn” from down wind to the end of the runway. 3 engine failures over the many years with nary a dent brought home all that training. I made the “impossible turn” and not only made it back but all the way around the pattern and landed on the same runway I departed on. I will admit I was flying a Bo at the time with the wheels up. Only put them down when the runway is made. The thing had a fantastic glide ratio with the gear up. With the gear down it made the Cherokee look like a sail plane…OK, maybe not quite that good, but about twice that of a 172 at best glide. Knowing what to do, doesn’t help much when you have to stop and think. Those often have to be instinctive reactions and the proper responses to the situation.

      I think the difference is “know your airplane, know it’s limits, and know yours” and practice, practice, practice and never abandon those pilotage skills regardless of what you have for instrumentation. I’ve had every single instrument in an airplane fail including the radios. “AT THE SAME TIME”. The only thing left working were the vacuum instruments and air speed with very poor visibility on an IFR flight. Cycling the mains brought them back on line. When they came back up the first thing I heard was ATC on the radio wanting to know what happened. It happened twice more on that flight with Oklahoma Center. (Static electricity and tornado watches) ATC was keeping me well away from the bad stuff.

      Which reminds me: I can’t imagine pilots thinking that their downloaded weather radar is real time. At best it’s 5 minutes old It could easily be 10 minutes old just before the next update. When storms cells are moving 50, 60, or 70 MPH that means the real world is quite different than the display.

      Most of the private pilots I’ve known over the years stop learning, and practicing once they get the license, or about the only time they “freshen up” is biennial time. I know the FAA says it’s not a biennial, but what do your call something that is every two years

      The instructors usually had me doing lazy eights and Chandelles on biennials.
      It takes lots of practice to handle unexpected situations and it’s a good idea to know the airplanes and you limitations. It just might save your life.

  34. larry Rachlin says:

    I learned in a 150 my first aircraft was a T craft bc12d I bought a 172 new then gave up flying for awhile then bought a 195-b cessna Have about 500 hours t/w time
    I do not subcsribe to the old saw that if you can fly a tail wheel aircraft you are a real pilot. I find that my tail wheel time makes me flair out too high. At 88 and a 25 year lay off I found that I did remember how to fly and needed to just do it a bit. The IFR part and current usage of Flight Service etc I had to learn as I did not know that in the beginning. I still suffer from bad flight training. Am taking courses at Century Flight Academy to get my self up to speed. Tail wheel does not help although I think it is eaiser to fly. You are right about the ball You had to center because there was differential ailerons.

  35. Ken McKown says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I just turned 60 a few days ago. I didn’t start pilot training until 48, but I still notice a slight drop in reaction times since then. Not much but it’s still there. I exercise several times a week with weight training and aerobics and that has helped a lot.

    I find myself being more cautious now. Where I used to just “go for it”, that’s not the case anymore. Call it experience or call it trepidation, it’s real and part of my personal checklist now. If anything looks or feels wrong I get back in my truck and go home.

    In my humble opinion, I believe each pilot has to do a personal evaluation of his or her skills plus physical condition and admit honestly when the inevitable aging process has taken a toll. I have made that part of my evaluation process.

  36. Bill says:

    One of my RC model students is about 85 now. It took him about a year to solo the RC model and has since quit RC models since he cannot fly often enough to stay capable.
    Recently, he told me that he is going to buy a Light Sport Airplane and fly under LSA rules without a medical.
    He has a private certificate. But wasn’t the best pilot (according to him).

    So only a flight review is required to get him “current” since his last flight was 2002.
    My question is: will the new instructor determine his competency?
    Or is up to him? I didn’t think a flight review could be passed or failed (legally).

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