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.