How Do You Know When You're Too Old to Fly?

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Barely a few hours after the tragic crash of Jimmy Leeward's P-51 racer at the Reno air race, I got an e-mail from a colleague posing this question: "What's an 80-year-old pilot doing flying an unlimited in this race?" Notwithstanding the fact that Leeward's age was repeatedly mis-reported in the breaking hours of this story—he was 74, not 80—the crash did raise the emotional issue of age versus piloting.

I heard and saw a lot of knee-jerk reaction to the effect of "how dare you propose that age could have been a factor in this crash." To me, this is an utterly irrational reaction that all but subverts what the fact pattern might eventually show. My personal peanut-gallery view is that the pilot's age won't prove relevant, but I'm able to remain open-minded enough to realize that even if it wasn't, it certainly could be. And, I'm sure, has been.

That raises the difficult question of what we, as pilots, do ahead of the fact when age becomes an issue in the erosion of piloting skill. How do you know when to hang it up? Are you perceptive enough and wise enough to recognize when you can't hack it anymore or is your ego still the same size it was when you were 20? Personally, I'm from the age-is-just-a-number school of thought and believe it's up to us as individuals to responsibly decide for ourselves when we can no longer perform as pilots. I'm not interested in any one-size-fits-all governmental nudging on the subject, nor am I especially receptive to friendly advice from friends who are scared of their own shadows and selling their toys to join the cruise ship social circuit. Having said that, I find myself equally irritated by pilots who simply refuse to consider that age—including numbers adding up to the seventh decade—can mean you really shouldn't be flying anymore. But that's not true for all of us.

I don't have a ready solution for this conundrum, other than to suggest minor strategies to defuse some of the risk. Obviously, as we age, most of us lower the level of challenge by flying less at night, raising weather minima or maybe stepping out of a retract and into an LSA. This is a recognition of limitation and it shows wisdom and good judgment. People accustomed to competing fiercely or who have engaged in a lifetime of risky activities may have more difficulty with these kinds of decisions and, to be honest, may have a reduced need to even make them because of more refined skills, better survival instinct and a higher ability to build in compensations. That's one way of saying one 74-year-old is not necessarily the same as the next. But there are still limits.

Speaking of compensations, if you don't know what that means, you will by the time you reach your 60s. You'll compensate for eyesight that's not as sharp, for hearing that's fuzzy and for reaction times that aren't as quick. If you followed by three car lengths in your 50s, you'll use five now. Flying with a younger companion will suddenly develop an irresistible appeal.

There's one other factor in this equation and it may be the most important: It ain't just about you. In assuming risk in piloting, others—wives, kids, siblings—may not have a vote in the risk decision, but they have a definite interest and will suffer consequences of a wrong one. To that effect, I saw a novel compensation strategy the other day.

I traveled to AOPA via motorcycle and encountered another rider exiting the Autotrain and about to wail down the Blue Ridge Parkway in the rain. He had a Ducati and up on the fairing under the windshield was one of those little yellow plastic ducks we've all seen. When I noticed it and commented on it being the Duc duck, he said, "Actually, I put that there to remind me of my daughter when I find myself getting a little too aggressive."

Nice touch. Perhaps we all need such reminders.

Comments (96)

I came up the hard way. Flying all the miserable general aviation jobs in the 70s and early 80s, cencelled checks, freight all night in Beech 18s. Finally made it to the airlines in 1985. First Eastern for a couple of years and then my goal(?) United Airlines. By this time I already had 12000 hours. So for my first 3 years at United I sat sideways on a DC8. So I hadnt flown in 3 years. My next bid was first officer on the 737. Wow not flying for 3 years really made a difference. Its not that I couldnt do it, its I had to really think about everything I was doing. No subcontious working for me. A few months of six legged days and I was back 100%. Most of my life Ive flown 1000 hours a year. Doing that amount of flying you stay real sharp. Its not an age thing. Its more about how much flying and quality flying you do. Im 64 and unemployed. Was only able to put 10 hours on my C210 last year. This year will be worse. I have every belief a few hourse in the saddle and Ill be fine. After all I have all that experience,and that make a big difference. Captain William G. Miller

Posted by: william miller | September 28, 2011 2:42 AM    Report this comment

You start out with Reno and Jimmy's age and you finish with a motorcycle (and riding in the rain no less).
Jimmy's age had nothing to do with that accident, so why even bring it up? Did anyone bring up the age of the pilot involved in the 1998 loss of trim tab incident? If is not relevant do not throw it into the mix.

In high school several kids had motorcycles; of the group, only one was not killed
(3) or injured. Perhaps you would be better served, personally, to re-evaluate the wisdom of your motorcycle riding and how it might affect your "others".

Lynn Farnsworth
Reno Race Pilot
Air Force Fighter Pilot
Non rider of motorcycles

Posted by: Lynn Farnsworth | September 28, 2011 6:09 AM    Report this comment

Your comparison of flying and motorcycling is not without some validity. Essentially, they rank the same in Risk rating. You asked when is too old? Two very notable people have died the result of motorcycle accidents:
• Thomas Lawrence, A.K.A. Lawrence of Arabia age 46 and
• Pete Conrad age 69
Speed has an impact to risk, the faster you go the riskier the activity. However, speed is not the only determinant: experience, how recent your activities and level of training. Perhaps some good will come of this unfortunate accident. In the case of T. E. Lawrence, his death led to the implementation of helmets for motorcycle riders.

Posted by: Christopher Basham | September 28, 2011 6:33 AM    Report this comment

I think aeroelastic flutter causing failure of the elevator trim tab, created the suspected 11 G pitch-up. This pitch-up is more than sufficient to create sudden "G" onset unconsciousness,
or even break the pilot's neck.
What caused that flutter, should be the question investigators should be asking.
I have one pilot friends who is 93 with a Class 2 physical and as sharp as any I have seen. I have another pilot friend 79 that competes (very well, thank you) in unlimited aerobatics. I can cite numerous other examples. Singular examples, yes, but, the question is not age. It may be the physical and mental condition of the pilot. From all information available Mr. Leeward met all those conditions.
F-100, UAL, numerous GA aircraft, and I ride motorcycles.

Posted by: David Mosby | September 28, 2011 7:51 AM    Report this comment

The average person and many pilots might jump to the conclusion that age was a factor at Reno when they hear he was 74 (or 80) years old and passed out in the race. What they don't realize is that very few people including Top Gun pilots could handle 10 or 11 g's and remain conscious. As an ex-Navy pilot I experience 4-6 g's in the A-4 every day. But with a very rapid onset of 10-11 g's you will pass out within 2-3 seconds. This is especially true when the rapid pitch-up is uncommanded and you weren't expecting it.

The pilot in 1998 passed out but came to in time to land safely but it could just have easily ended the other way.

I think it's our job as pilots to help quell rumors and ensure critics are aware of the facts. The full story is still coming out but when it's finalized let's hope the repercussions are minimal.

Posted by: JIM DUNN | September 28, 2011 7:53 AM    Report this comment

My flight instructor when I started taking lessons was eighty someting, talk about experience and knowledge that these pilots can pass on to the younger generations. As long as they pass the physical exams and can fly more power too them I for one am glad to have them in the skies.

Posted by: Troy Terry | September 28, 2011 7:56 AM    Report this comment

As aviators, one of our primary jobs is to measure risk... and get it right all the time. I fly all types of aircraft: G-550, SEL, gliders, balloons, hang-gliders, even paragliders & powered paragliders. Choosing the weather to fly in is my biggest determinant. Even the Gulfstream is not up to flying through a thunderstorm. For me it makes no sense to fly a very sophisticated bizjet, and kill myself in the paraglider. I really try to be careful every time I leave the ground.

OK, now to the point. I'm sure everyone who flies at Reno, measures risk, and mitigates it to the best of their ability. We can not fool ourselves by saying Reno is without risk, it is High Risk, but measured risk. Age, or more importantly, functionality is just one of the variables at play. The trim-tab issue... that was the wild card, very hard to anticipate, and mitigate (but it did happen before, and they'll learn from it so it doesn't happen again). The trim tab coming off would probably have the same outcome, no matter the pilot, age, or fitness level.

I think the decisions we make as pilots are most important in our managing risk. I think of Steve Wittman (91), who chose to fly with a known airplane deficiency. I think of Leo Loudenslager (55?)... the best of the best, who died on a motorcycle.

My wife will not allow me to own a motorcycle, but we both hope to fly well into our retirement... measuring risk, thoughtfully, and carefully as we go.

Dave Conrad, 57

Posted by: David Conrad | September 28, 2011 8:06 AM    Report this comment

I don't believe age had anything to do with this incident. I do believe judgement had everything to do with this incident. Flight instruction today concentrates on numbers and flying skills which is great. However, poor judgement calls can get you in trouble quicker than anything, regardless of your skill level. Every flight in this aircraft was a test flight, and test flights near thousands of people, not a good judgement call.

Posted by: David Jaeb | September 28, 2011 8:59 AM    Report this comment

I fail to see your stance on this incident. Your contention is that this particular race plane was being experimented on and because of this should not have been allowed to participate in such a dangerous act as racing at Reno.

Well, you know what, you are correct. That airplane was being experimented on. What you are failing to recognize is that every single aircraft registered to race at Reno, no matter which category it was racing in, is being experimented on prior to, during and after the race. These are all experimental aircraft! Why are you singling out this particular experimental aircraft and making a judgement that it should not have been allowed to participate?

I imagine you, along with many others who may be thinking down this line, saw the interview with Mr. Leeward when he mentioned the experimenting going on with several "systems". This is not a good basis for such a judgement call since you could have come to the same conclusion had you watched every other racer comment about what they were "tweaking" on their aircraft.

Posted by: Steve Ingraham | September 28, 2011 9:22 AM    Report this comment

Quote: "Jimmy's age had nothing to do with that accident, so why even bring it up? Did anyone bring up the age of the pilot involved in the 1998 loss of trim tab incident? If is not relevant do not throw it into the mix."

There is no way to dismiss it so readily. G tolerance declines with age, even for pilots who experience Gs on a regular basis. It's certainly possible a younger pilot might not have succumbed to the G forces at the same point as Leeward did and that could have made a difference. Speculation? Of course, but flatly rejecting age as a factor is narrowmindedness that the official investigation cannot indulge in. All factors have to be considered.

I'm intrigued that the same person who denies the relevance of the pilot's age finds their own long-ago second-hand (at best) connection to motorcycle accidents to be relevant to Bertorelli's "wisdom" regarding motorcycle riding. How on earth does that have any relevance at all, while the age of the pilot who crashed has none?

Or is the determination of relevance the sole purview of that one individual? If so, then some consistency would help.

Posted by: Jeff Rankin-Lowe | September 28, 2011 10:26 AM    Report this comment

Here we go again with age. How about health, fellows, HEALTH? Even the FAR Part 61 does not name age as a factor in granting a medical. It's not age folks it's what you have been pushing through your face all your life. If you want to get up to speed on the subject go to the web site Read and head.

Posted by: kent tarver | September 28, 2011 10:29 AM    Report this comment

Sorry, read and heed, not head.

Posted by: kent tarver | September 28, 2011 10:30 AM    Report this comment

I don't think age, per se, is a disqualifying factor, but age combined with g forces involved with competitive flying is a factor that may or may not be a factor in this accident. When I was in AF pilot training in my 20s, I could take the g forces reasonably well, after retirement from an airline career, I would exercise the prudence to not put myself or others in harms way by flying high performance aircraft in high g maneuvers, but would still feel comfortable piloting other types of aircraft.

Posted by: David Winter | September 28, 2011 12:03 PM    Report this comment

I think, that if you can pass the medical exam, you get to fly. if you do not pass the medical your flying days are over. AGE shouldnt matter. i know that there are many exemptions to that fact. i am not a pilot, but am a big enthusiast. i honestly dont think that JIMMY'S age had anything to do with this horrible accident. if the faa had any problems with jimmy, medically or otherwise, they would at least suspend his license, or medically DQ him in a split second. i would think so anyways.

Posted by: james cooley | September 28, 2011 12:15 PM    Report this comment

Jeff Rankin-Lowe said: "Or is the determination of relevance the sole purview of that one individual? If so, then some consistency would help."

I do not ride motorcycles anymore, but I do not want to tell Paul, or anyone else that he/they can't because of "age". "Age" should not be the factor that determines if I can race at Reno. My ability to do something should be what determines that. There are many young people I would not want around me on the race course at Reno because of their lack of ability to perform; ability NOT "age".

The normal "Gs" associated with flying the race course where tolerated by Jimmy and the other "mature" pilots. I challenge you to find any "young" pilot that would not succumb to G-LOC of under the same circumstances.

Be there, done that on the Reno race course. Have you?

Posted by: Lynn Farnsworth | September 28, 2011 2:12 PM    Report this comment

Relative to "Captain" Millers opening comment, "I came up the hard way", perhaps there is an "easy way"?

Posted by: vic matloff | September 28, 2011 2:53 PM    Report this comment

Lynn, lighten up.

Posted by: Jay Manor | September 28, 2011 6:12 PM    Report this comment


The "age" thing is a pet peeve of mine!

Posted by: Lynn Farnsworth | September 28, 2011 7:00 PM    Report this comment

This is going to be an interesting dialog. We have an "air" of "the rich vs. the poor" developing more strongly everyday in our we are going to have the "young vs. the old" firing up. This issue is as individual as any I can think of. We have all seen the "old 80 year old" vs. the "young 80 year old". It must be left up to the medical folks and the individuals involved. This was the main issue with the "age 60" rule with the airlines.It was a totally arbitrary number established years ago between two individuals when dealing with the issue...nothing more. It finally went to 65 and a more stringent medical look at the "old" individuals involved. One of the driving forces with the "age 60" rule was also the "younger" pilots simply using "age" in order to further their own progress to the left seat...get the "old" guys out of the way in order to get that Captain's slot. This is simply human nature since those same guys, when they reach the magic 60, would be the first to then fight the "age 60" rule. Blanket statements about age are just simply that...blanket statements, depending on the age of the "blanketeer".

Posted by: Blaine Banks | September 28, 2011 11:07 PM    Report this comment

Another thought about "compensations". We have to also consider that the "younger" set of pilots also have to "compensate" for lack of experience.

Posted by: Blaine Banks | September 28, 2011 11:09 PM    Report this comment

Having had the pleasure back in the 1980's of observing the races from under the #1 pylon, I got to witness the effect of wake turbulence up close. After listening to the Reno valley "sing" with the echo of Merlins and the 4360 Corsair, and witnessing the doppler effect of two P-51s approaching silently at ~500 mph low level vieing for the lead, the trailing plane suddenly snapped violently left and then recovered to the right and gained altitude to the east and then finished the race out of contention.It was a quite violent 500 mph snap roll. The reports I have read of this crash have the same scenario of rolling and pitching by the trailing plane. Coupled with speed and stress on the plane, it might lead to structural failure. An experienced race pilot like Jimmy even at his age likely had a better chance of recovery from this type of situation than a less experienced person. Although this may not be what happened in this case, structural failure trumps age or experience in the worlds fastest motor sport as has been witnessed before. Lets just hope they keep them flying

Posted by: R SCHAEFFER | September 29, 2011 8:00 AM    Report this comment

"G tolerance declines with age, even for pilots who experience Gs on a regular basis."
Where's the reference for that?
G tolerance is a matter of physical fitness, experience, onset rate and length of exposure. I spent much of my life pulling 9.3G on a routine basis, when I wasn't investigating F-16 accidents. The more you do it, the better you do it. A friend GLOC'd at 10.3 after a flight control failure. Fortunately, or as expected, his IP in the pit didn't... I can assure you that the IP was older. Age and flying (driving, golf, sex) are based on individual conditions, not a calendar.

Posted by: RONALD MOORE | September 29, 2011 8:28 AM    Report this comment

Well, thank God, most commentators brought up the demonstrated fact that chronological age IS just a number. I flew jump seat with Jimmy a couple of years ago in his other P-51 (Cloud Dancer) and he sure seemed sharp enough to me. I fact I thought he was in his late fifties based on appearance and behavior.

Posted by: ARTHUR THOMPSON | September 29, 2011 8:51 AM    Report this comment

One of the greatest comebacks ever :-)

"I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." - Ronald Reagan, September 21, 1984

Posted by: A Richie | September 29, 2011 9:37 AM    Report this comment

"How Do You Know When You're Too Old to Fly?" When; by your own judgment and judgment of those you trust including your AME say you are too old regardless of age. If this is not your standard then you lack the judgment to hold an airman certificate regardless of age.

A more important question is why waste time and resources on a topic like this while there are many more important issues to address instead of just adding fodder to the negative criticism of the National Championship Air Races and the plaintiffs' lawyers.

My basis is negative criticism of this topic is that of being an aviation attorney, 20 year participant in the races and a lifetime effort of dispelling aviation myths.

It is past time for this thread to die for it should have never been instigated.

Posted by: Cliff Magee | September 29, 2011 9:51 AM    Report this comment

I am in the "age is just a number" camp. Been flying since 1966 and riding motocycles since well before that, and still doing both at almost age 69, with no accidents, incidents, violations or insurance claims in either case. I struggle to get in 100 hours per year in my Bell 407. In order to compensate for the relatively low hours per year, I do more recurrent training than most, and do a formal proficiency check annually. I have asked my principal instructor, who I fly with several times a year, to carefully monitor my performance as a pilot and to be tell me in very clear terms if he sees a proficiency issue.

While age may not have been a factor in the Reno accident, most of these race pilots, IMHO, need medical treatment known as TRT: testosterone reduction therapy. It seems as though they are compelled to maximize risk, with little meaningful return.

Posted by: R Boswell | September 29, 2011 10:02 AM    Report this comment

Although this issue was raised after the Reno Race accident, the greater question remains. Is there an age at which we should no longer act as pilot in command of any aircraft?
Several people have commented that there are "old" 80 year old and "young" 80 year old pilots. Although it is true that both may have reduced visual acuity, and reduced reflex response, flying is an intellectual activity. Therefore, the decision to stop flying is neither health nor age related but more related to mental acuity. Noone has as yet addressed this as the real measure of when a person has stopped being a good and safe pilot. This is why I have always gone for recurrent training annually and will stop flying when I do not perform well at these sessions. I am over 70 years of age and still flying approaches as well as I did when I passed the IFR cert exam.

Posted by: Barry Fisher | September 29, 2011 10:06 AM    Report this comment

Cliff Magee...kudos on the "should never have been instigated"...this is a "loaded" issue and will always be so.

Posted by: Blaine Banks | September 29, 2011 10:10 AM    Report this comment

The issue is, "How Do You Know When You're Too Old to Fly?", i.e., when do we, as pilots, know to make the decision to hang it up? Lots of answers here have diverted from that question.

I’m almost 68. I have a Class II Special Issuance (cancer survivor). I fly a “hot rod” 172 (bigger engine, CS prop, semi-STOL), mostly for fun. Could I fly a more complicated airplane? Sure, but I’d have to work harder at it than I did as a kid. Could I fly an airliner, or bizjet, or a turbine twin? Nah, never got the training. Could I get the training and do it? Probably. But it would take more work, more concentration, than when I was a kid. Could I do aerobatics? Sure-rusty, but I still remember what I was taught, so they wouldn’t be pretty, not because of age, but because it’s been awhile.

I recognize my limitations, though. It’s harder to get in and out of the airplane. I have to use the checklist more religiously. I have to concentrate a bit more on instruments. I can’t take long days as well. I need oxygen at a lower altitude. But I can still grease the landings, I don’t get lost in the mountains, and I can still pass a stringent BFR, although it sometimes takes me twice to pass an IPC if I haven’t flown on instruments in awhile.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | September 29, 2011 10:13 AM    Report this comment

But when should I quit? I make occasional mistakes, but no more and not more serious than I did as a kid. Maybe that’s the key, when my mistakes become more serious, but will it be too late at that point?

I guess my point is that it’s a tough call. It’s hard to be objective about oneself. We want to fly as long as we are able, but when we are no longer able is hard for us to determine. So there’s no easy answer, and it will vary from pilot to pilot, based on health, age, experience, training, type of aircraft, so one size doesn’t fit all.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | September 29, 2011 10:14 AM    Report this comment

...kudos on the "should never have been instigated"...

I am on the other side of this issue. The vast majority of non pilots will almost to a person believe that age IS a big issue and that EVERY pilot should hang up the scarf and goggles at age 60 if not sooner. This is a knee jerk, unimformed reaction. The reason to bring this issue front and center is to confront the misperceptions held by much of the public in a proactive manner - that is if you want to keep flying past 60.

Posted by: R Boswell | September 29, 2011 10:17 AM    Report this comment

Unfortunately, I was working security at the Air Races when this terrible incident occurred. It could have been MUCH worse. But we are talking about two seperate issues.

Racing is one issue. The reports are that in the pull-up out of the racing line, a level of 22.5g's were reached. A 25 year old fighter jock would not be able to withstand that kind of stress without at least blacking out. In the 4-5 seconds it took for the accident to occurr, I doubt that ANYONE could recover control of the aircraft.

At the same time, Mr. Leeward was accomplished and there is no doubt that he should be allowed to fly. Age did not seem to have deteriorated his skills appreciably.

For air racing, maybe an age limit of 60, 62, or 65 may make some sense just because of physiological changes that occurr as we all age. Maybe at 65 we should shorten the BFR to an annual assessment of our skills (and I am only 7 years from that threshold) to make sure that we are as sharp as we believe.

Posted by: Dennis Koehl | September 29, 2011 10:26 AM    Report this comment

I am approaching my 74th birthday and still operate 747's as a Flight Engineer worldwide. Also still fly and maintain our 172. This age question is a non starter. How about periodic testing to drive a car considering in the USA alone we kill on average about 120 people a day on the roads.

Posted by: Malcolm Warren | September 29, 2011 11:18 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the great, and succinct comments, Cliff Magee.
I'm sure Mr. Koehl has a lot of experience on the security end of the Reno Air Races, but that's where his comments should end, as well as any other arbitrary age discussion. An Air Force General appointed to the directorship of the FAA once made the determination that jet airliners needed three pilots and age 59 was the latest a pilot could stay sharp enough to fly them. Both of those loaded, untrue and arbitrary rules are no longer with us.
This article was as sensationalistic and unprofessional as the worst about the accident at Reno this year in the mainstream press and tabloids.
If the author wanted to start a conversation about aged pilots, he couldn't have picked a worse example than that of Jimmy Leewards accident. Irresponsible journalism, right from within aviation itself. I'm disappointed.

Posted by: chris mcmillin | September 29, 2011 11:30 AM    Report this comment

Age was not the issue. As Dennis Koehl pointed out, the telemetry indicated >22 G's - a Navy Seal in his 20's couldn't stay conscious under that kind of unexpected loading without proper support.

Aerodynamic flutter was the _apparent_ cause of this tragic accident. The idea that all of these airplanes are experimental and that every race is an experiment ignores the responsibility of those who make these modifications to test them before exposing others to potential risks.

I'm no lawyer (aerospace engineer - Master's degree), so I'm not out to assign blame. But in any aircraft development project, testing to a level that provides a reasonable safety factor in actual use is standard practice. Were the changes to this aircraft tested at speeds and forces well enough above the maximum race speed to ensure that structure and aerodynamics were safe? I don't know. But they should have been. If they were and it was a freak failure, then it was a tragic but unavoidable accident.

Age had nothing to do with it in any event.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 29, 2011 12:18 PM    Report this comment

On the age issue - one more thought. As I approach 66 in a few weeks, I'm as healthy as I've ever been. No meds. 50 or more pushups every morning. Walk at least 10 miles a week. Watch my weight. Reaction time better than most who are decades younger than I am. Just completed a helicopter rating a month or so ago to add to my 2800+ hr in fixed wing with Citation and L-39 types. So making 60, 65, or any other arbitrary age a hard limit is ludicrous to me. It's all in how you take care of yourself as well as some luck in the gene pool.

BUT - I know a time is coming when I will not be capable of safely flying an airplane or helicopter alone. How will I recognize it when it will probably (hopefully!) come on slowly? I think setting some objective criteria well before then - even putting them down on paper for my family - would be the best way to deal with it.

I would welcome some objective measure of the various skills needed to fly safely - perhaps simulator-based tests (not necessarily an aircraft simulator, but tests for reaction time, congitive skills, visual-motor skills, situational awareness, etc.). I'd be interested in others' thoughts on this.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 29, 2011 12:29 PM    Report this comment

I'm 56, and not as sharp as when I started in my ate 30's, but still reasonably competent. My profession is one of those that relies on good eyesight and eye-hand coordination, both of which are not as good as they were in my 30's. At some point I'm going to look at the work I'm doing, and decide that it's not something I'm satisfied with, and hang up the old dental drill. I see a lot of dentists sticking with it too long and producing inferior work, and I know I don't want to be one of them, but I wonder if I'll recognize that break point when it happens to me. This kind of decision is difficult to make in any aspect of life, but arbitrary age limits will not help anything. Recurrent testing of skills would be a better solution, but we don't even do that for automobile drivers, who place far more other people at risk than recreational pilots. I can, however, imagine those same car drivers clamoring for regulations to require it for recreational pilots . . .

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | September 29, 2011 12:33 PM    Report this comment

Again, this entire topic and thread based upon its headline and subject matter is inappropriate.

Association between the races and pilot ages is irresponsible journalism and does nothing to promote aviation.

Such association in this thread also demonstrates the readiness that even aviation oriented individuals are willing to publicly show their lack of knowledge and mal-formed opinions.

Based upon the content of the thread it is clear, with only a couple of exceptions, that any writer knows anything about how the races are handled, the scrutiny the pilots and aircraft are under, requirements and purposes of the pylon racing seminar each June and even the issues the FAA raised this year about engineering thus preventing the fastest aircraft from participating.

Unless you have been on the course as so few of us ever have at 450 m.p.h plus, you can not have a clue about what you are criticizing.

Again, I urge the termination of this thread as it should never have been instigated. Especially when it is based upon a racing accident that had nothing to do with the age or physical well-being of Jimmy.

Racing is one subject. Pilot age is another.

Keep it up and take credit for contributing to killing another great aviation icon.

Posted by: Cliff Magee | September 29, 2011 12:49 PM    Report this comment

I think it really comes down to the person to self-diagnose. Pilots are very responsible folks and they are very good at realizing when something needs attention. This is no different. I just don't think this should get to the point where we start letting others tell us when we can and can't cuts into our freedom as pilots.

Posted by: GRAEME LANG | September 29, 2011 1:25 PM    Report this comment

Sorry to disagree, Cliff, but I think the headline "How do you know when you're too old to fly" is a very appropriate subject. Tying age to the Reno accident is an unfortunate coincidence of Leeward's age and the fact that the accident took place. But it's been a major topic of discussion in the media and countering it is, I believe, important. If forums like this can allow us to share information with our non-aviation friends and dispel the notion that age had anything to do with this accident, then I think the discussion is appropriate. How many knew that the telemetry said the pull-up was >22 G's and not just 10 or so? How will a discussion on this forum kill racing?

"How" to know when it's time is challenging and a subject worth discussing. I think whether it's flying or driving, we all need to think about this while we're still competent and set criteria that we can't argue with later on out of our emotional ties to flying or driving.

Again, I would welcome some objective performance measurements that would tell me I'm losing it before it's too late.

I hope to go through PRS and race my L-39 with the rest of you one of these days. I'll probably be the last airplane in the slow group, because I'm not going to push the airplane or myself to our limits to try to win. I just want to be safe and have the experience and cameraderie of the group.


Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 29, 2011 1:40 PM    Report this comment

I find it very revealing that some pilots on this thread are incapable of seeing how the author took the question of age from a tragic event to a more philosophical question of the overall effect of aging on us all for a higher minded, more all inclusive discussion. It's a very good and relevant subject. Perhaps if one cannot see the difference, aging isn't working as well it should for you.

For me at 61 is all about adjustments to the changes aging brings. Just be in touch honestly with yourself about your skills, mental acuity, flying tasks and aircraft type and make the necessary adjustments as you go. And find your own yellow duck equivalent because it ain't all about you.

Posted by: David Miller | September 29, 2011 1:45 PM    Report this comment

Walt, I am sending you a pm related to the races. As for this forum and thread, there is a void of the detailed information and an apparent void of actual knowledge of the FAA'S Medical Certification Standards and the RARA and various racing classes' standards for pilots and aircraft.

How many on this thread know the details regarding the FAA and RARA? The basic threashold issue of judgment regardless of age?

Any discussion without the facts is simply mass media journalism wroght with its mis-information and the consequnces of public opinion based upon incompete facts.

Posted by: Cliff Magee | September 29, 2011 2:36 PM    Report this comment

My decision not to fly PIC any more will be directly connected to my medical. When the aviation doctor tells me I'm not safe, we will have a detailed talk, and he will have to tell me that he is himself a pilot so that I know he understands. As it is, I do not fly in bad weather or if I'm not feeling quite right. So, in my view, age has very little to do with flying, except that I recognize the little aches I get now and then and I ask myself if I'm fit for flying today. I'm almost 77.

Posted by: Manuel Erickson | September 29, 2011 3:17 PM    Report this comment

My decision not to fly PIC any more will be directly connected to my medical. When the aviation doctor tells me I'm not safe, we will have a detailed talk, and he will have to tell me that he is himself a pilot so that I know he understands. As it is, I do not fly in bad weather or if I'm not feeling quite right. So, in my view, age has very little to do with flying, except that I recognize the little aches I get now and then and I ask myself if I'm fit for flying today. I'm almost 77.

Posted by: Manuel Erickson | September 29, 2011 3:18 PM    Report this comment

"I find it very revealing that some pilots on this thread are incapable of seeing how the author took the question of age from a tragic event to a more philosophical question of the overall effect of aging on us all for a higher minded, more all inclusive discussion. It's a very good and relevant subject. Perhaps if one cannot see the difference, aging isn't working as well it should for you."

That's two of us, bro. As I carefully pointed out in the logic--or thought that I did--the Leeward accident merely put age in general on the table. I know this because I've seen it in the mass media reports and many pilots have raised the issue quite on their own.

You don't need to have roared around Reno at 450 MPH to have an opinion on this, the Leeward accident notwithstanding. As a community of like-minded individuals, we need to be able to discuss these topics freely and honestly. The Reno accident was merely the stepping off point.

To call such discussions "inappropriate" is to have one's head in the sand, so to speak. That's an attitude that soons get you into the column "never saw it coming."

Dave, this always seems to happen when I go all high minded. Maybe I should stick with low brow.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 29, 2011 3:22 PM    Report this comment

Paul, your latest post proves my point. It is irresoponsible to propogate a discussion without a detailed understanding of the subject matter. Such detail is not contained anywhere in this thread.

Go back and start with the FAA AME'S measure and assessment of judgment. Knowledge and its application is the opposite of having one's head in the sand.

Then you may have a forum on the subject of wheather or not the FAA'S criteria is correct and effective and the assessment of the aviation community of that criteria.

If that can not be done on any subject then it is inappropriate.

Regardless, leave racing out of it.

Posted by: Cliff Magee | September 29, 2011 4:15 PM    Report this comment

I've read a report conducted by the Air Force where the conclusion was that G tolerance in "healthy individuals" actually increases with age. Maybe the only benefit to getting older. The oldest subject in the test was 55. I'm 56 and the thing I have a problem with is my eyes. Can't read those plates as easily as before. I don't have as much stamina as I used to, but I didn't weight 230lbs then either. I think the time comes when we all have to hang it up, but as to when that could vary quite abit. I just hope I recognize it when it happens. I just know we're having a hard time getting my father to stop driving. BTW, I still do track days on my bike and don't have any problem keeping up with the younger amateurs.

Posted by: Rex Bartlett | September 29, 2011 5:28 PM    Report this comment


Your first post here stated: ["How Do You Know When You're Too Old to Fly?" When; by your own judgment and judgment of those you trust including your AME say you are too old regardless of age. If this is not your standard then you lack the judgment to hold an airman certificate regardless of age.]

I wish it was true, but I'm afraid there are AME's and there are AME's, and there are pilots who can be objective about declining skills, and those who cannot. I don't think any of my AME's could have evaluated my judgment and ability to fly a jet or a helicopter based on their limited observations in the doctor's office, unless I was sufficiently incapacitated to make it obvious. I worry more about the gray area than when things are black and white. AME's are busy doctors in my experience, and are not equipped nor required (I've read Chapter 3 of the FAA AME Manual) to assess these skills.

We all know flying is dependent on multitasking and situational awareness coupled with knowledge of systems and motor memory developed through training and practice. So again, I would personally welcome some objective method of testing such skills that would tell me that my performance is degrading well before it reaches an unacceptable level. Forewarned is forearmed.

And I agree - leave racing out of this discussion.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 29, 2011 5:35 PM    Report this comment

What happened? The quote didn't get printed.

Your first post stated:

"How Do You Know When You're Too Old to Fly?" When; by your own judgment and judgment of those you trust including your AME say you are too old regardless of age. If this is not your standard then you lack the judgment to hold an airman certificate regardless of age.


Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 29, 2011 5:44 PM    Report this comment

Sorry, Cliff, I just reject your notion that this is not a worthy discussion. Blogs are opinions and this one is informed. If you care to read it, the question raised is how each of us will know when it's time to quit flying due to age. We will all reach that point.

The accident at Reno is merely the jumping off point because it raised the issue among pilots and the general public. That makes it fair game. If you want to be over-sensitive to the issue, that's your business.

But blogs are opinions and opportunity for others to express same. Other than sedition, libel and personal threats, opinions are not irresponsible.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 29, 2011 6:05 PM    Report this comment

Walt, to get a quote to reproduce, just past it between quote marks. If you use carets or anything else, the system will reject it.

Due to overwhelming spamming, we had to install this filter. I don't like it either, but the alternative is either captchas, which I despise, or a lot of spam for us to remove manually. I hate that even more.

Sorry. Best we can do with this version of forum software.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 29, 2011 6:42 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, Paul.

I realized I had put square brackets around it and that was probably the cause.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 29, 2011 6:45 PM    Report this comment

Author Bertorelli,
Hooking the Reno accident to old age is sensationalistic and bad for sport aviation. You used it to get a bunch of mail. Speaking of forum software, it makes the lines about Jimmy Leeward and the accident visible in the e-mail headline, and you knew it. You wrote it to make sure that it was in the visible headline. It's an act of sensationalistic "journalism".
Face it, you blew it.
There is no connection between this accident and age of the pilot. No matter what your "opinion" is on the matter.

Posted by: chris mcmillin | September 29, 2011 8:00 PM    Report this comment

As I read the question initially, I stated that it was a "loaded" question. Most everyone has responded with the fact that it is completely an individual determination and should not be another "government" directive. As in some Chess games, this question had no "checkmate" was obvious from the beginning. This was nothing more than an exercise in linguistics. Of course it is a "useful" discussion, all discussions are, even if they have no real tangible outcome to be gained. I would submit that this was an exercise of no real import. The obvious outcome has been reached, unless, someone started suggesting a finite age in which to "hang up" the one individual dictated age basis in fact for this age. Two gentlemen, in a galaxy far, far away, sat down and came up with the age "60". This was the owner of, I think it was Pan Am at the time and the equivalent of the FAA director. They simply had a political issue to resolve and between the two of them came up with the aribitrary age of 60. Needless to say, over the years, this age has been defended and also denegrated as if it had some scientific basis for it's determination...two guys making a "backroom" agreememt...that is all. The name escapes me at the moment, but, one of these gentlemen was La Guardia who has an airport named after him. The other's first name was Juan...just can't think of his last name at the moment. History can procuce some real fascinating revelations.

Posted by: Blaine Banks | September 29, 2011 8:45 PM    Report this comment

It was Juan Trippe and La Guardia who came up with this age 60 in their negotiations. This took place somewhere in the 1930/40's if I am not mistaken. Anyone out there know the particulars on this meeting? I Googled but didn't find the specifics on this meeting. I think the main ingredient was cigars and whiskey at the time, with some politics thrown in.

Posted by: Blaine Banks | September 29, 2011 8:56 PM    Report this comment

• EVERYBODY suffers from a decline in cognitive skills as we age. The exception: Pilots with experience were able to partially offset multi-tasking issues through experience.
• We tend to suffer more from sleep loss as we age. Don’t be like Grandpa and keep nodding off. Coping strategy: Make sure you get enough rest.
• Sight: We tend to have problems focusing eyesight—glasses are a must. We have problems seeing things in the cockpit under low-light conditions. There’s no use in denying it—an Ophthalmologist pilot I know said that nearly everybody needs glasses within 6 months either side of their 44th birthday—it’s THAT predictable. Coping strategy: Turn up the lights—you’ll need them. Use white light, or supplemental light.
• Hearing: It’s no surprise that pilots have hearing loss, but here IS a surprise: After age 60, pilots are at par with the rest of the non-pilot population. That means you are no more or no less deaf than your non-pilot friends.

Posted by: jim hanson | September 30, 2011 9:13 AM    Report this comment

• Reaction time: It’s slower in older pilots, but then, how many of us need the lightning-fast reflexes of a fighter pilot in the airplanes WE fly?
• Memory: We all suffer from loss of short-term memory, but several studies have confirmed that active pilots were MORE likely than non-pilots to be able to remember headings, altitudes, frequencies, and (what WAS that other one?) transponder codes. This “continued experience” also applies to Attention Span. Coping Strategy: Use flow patterns, Mnemonics, and standard procedures (“I always use a GUMP checklist, and double-check gear down after turning final.”) Write things down—and use checklists.
• Problem-solving and decision making. The studies showed no discernable differences in the ability to solve problems and make decisions between older and younger pilots. Other studies alluded to, but did not measure senior pilot experience levels in making decisions.
• Simulator performance: A number of studies have been done regarding problems introduced in a flight simulator, as part of the study of the Age 60 rule. Results have been mixed: some studies showed degradation of ability from age 60-69, others showed very little. Something that caught my interest: Older pilots showed more impairment following alcohol consumption. (Duh!) Coping strategy: If you are going to drink, do so earlier, and leave more time before flight.

Posted by: jim hanson | September 30, 2011 9:14 AM    Report this comment

• Upgrade: Here’s a big one. In many cases, pilot experience will help a pilot through problems—in this case, experience hinders learning something new. Failure rates for commercial pilots in upgrading in equipment run only 2-5% for pilots aged 29-44—8% for those aged 45-48, and 16% for those 49 and up. That’s a HUGE difference. The study goes on to say that those pilots who have a greater number of flight hours in their former aircraft have the hardest time in upgrading. I believe that is because we have to “unlearn” systems from the old aircraft, while younger pilots start out with a “clean sheet.” Coping Strategy: I know that it helps me to learn a new aircraft if I can relate it to something else. The DC-9 hydraulic system, for example, is similar to that of the Falcon 10.
• Accidents: Auto accidents decline from ages 16-19 until age 30-34, before leveling out. Accidents started rising for the age 60-64 group. Interestingly, General Aviation accidents start to rise about age 63—but there is one more exception to the rule—general aviation pilots that have a Class I or II medical, but don’t fly “professionally” have little increase in accidents due to age—they may be flight instructors, examiners, or simply concerned enough to take more stringent physicals.

Posted by: jim hanson | September 30, 2011 9:16 AM    Report this comment

• Methodology: The increase in accidents at age 63 may or may not be attributable to age. Example: Many pro pilots fly turbine equipment, operate with carefully considered ops specs, and fly with the latest avionics up until age 60 or 65. After that, they often fly their own aircraft, without the safety these restrictions and procedures afforded, with understandably poorer results. Coping Strategy: Do as the pro pilots do—set personal minimums, set operating procedures, get continuous checkrides and training, fly with other pilots (it has been said that having a second proficient pilot in the aircraft provides more safety than having a second engine)
• Recent Flight Experience: Recent flight experience had far more importance than the age of the pilot. From the Handbook of Human Factors, page 319--The more a pilot flies, the safer he/she is. An active “senior” pilot is safer than a pilot aged 24-30 that doesn’t fly often. I like to think of this as the “Hoover Rule”—after famed experimental and airshow pilot Bob Hoover. Hoover continued to fly demanding airshows and high-performance aircraft safely well into his 70s—because he was a good pilot, because he was experienced, and because he flew A LOT!

Posted by: jim hanson | September 30, 2011 9:17 AM    Report this comment

just to clarify about the age vs gloc issue it has been proven that age actually helps the trained human body cope with higher g loadings, trained mind you, but for a great example look at our most experienced pilot on the face of the planet, sean d tucker is well advanced in age but as anyone can see he still flies at the brink of capabilities, he pushes himself into momentary 10+ g loadings daily, and this practice coupled with his age allows him to tackle g loads that younger pilots cant, and with more precision throughout the excercise than i think any other human can at this point in history, medically the proof lies in the issue that as we age our artery walls harden and are more resistant to the balloning effect that g loading puts on the blood vessels in the extremeties, age, in the right context and with proper training becomes like a genetic g-suit, leeward would have been in this category along with bill destefani, lyle shelton, mr. hinton and hinton jr, and many other racers at reno, not only do the racers at reno experience mildly elevated g's they cook in those g loadings for longer periods of time than any other sport i can think of,

Posted by: russell hayes | September 30, 2011 10:47 AM    Report this comment

but like many others have said here age wasnt a factor in the galloping ghost incident, wake turbulence and mechanical failure are the culprit, and for the engineer above, how would you propose that these systems be tested, a wind tunnel wont give you the answers because the flying surfaces arent being vibrated by the engine and you cant just bang out your fragile merlin at 500+ miles an hour any time u feel like it,

Posted by: russell hayes | September 30, 2011 10:48 AM    Report this comment

the race is the only time a true full on test can be accomplished, simply because of the situation and the rules involved in attempting it elsewhere, even if you did get clearance to test run at 500+ how can u duplicate the wake turbulence experienced in a turn unless u line up the ponies and race, again it rests that the only true test can come after the phrase gentlemen we have a race, thats the nature of what the unlimited class is, age as a factor, its a judgement call and a currency call, if u havent been training and working at doing it then 60 yrs old isnt the time to start learning to be a wac competitor or to buy a p-51 and expect to win the unlimited gold heat at reno, we all forge a path in life, and one of the places that death will always lurk is off to the sides of that path when we get older, the unknown terrain becomes a death trap where if we venture into it we are like fish out of water helpless against an environment that demands expertise that we just dont have, however inside the path that we have forged we have hopefully built the tools and experience we need to conquer the hurdles that we come to, theres nothing wrong with someone like sean tucker flying the oracle challenger under his world famous ribbon cut excercise well into his 70's and mabey his 80's as long as he stays the course and keeps his tools sharp and expertly maintained as he has done so far.

Posted by: russell hayes | September 30, 2011 10:48 AM    Report this comment

Russell, RE: My comment about testing modifications prior to a race.

Why not take the airplane to a safe altitude over a remote area, put it into a dive if necessary to get an airspeed a bit above expected race speeds, load the airplane to a bit higher G's than what would be expected, and test the responsiveness of the controls, aerodynamic flutter, etc. under those conditions? Eliminate proximity to the ground and other race airplanes, and allow the pilot to focus entirely on sensing impending instabilities in a more controlled environment. Gradually approaching limits is the way it's done, not all at once in the middle of a race, pulling G's in a critical turn while running flat out trying to pass someone in front of you, perhaps reaching combinations of speeds and G's that the airplane had not seen before. Sure, there would be no wake turbulence. Based on the three P-51 incidents with elevator trim tab failure over the years, I'm not (yet) convinced that wake turbulence contributed much.

To say the only true test is after the race starts is to ignore many years of testing in the industry where limits are gradually probed over remote areas and at high enough altitudes to maximize the pilot's chance of surviving (and minimize exposure to others) if things go awry. If you’re going to spend a ton of money preparing an airplane to compete, spending a bit more for fuel to gradually test the limits is not unrealistic.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 30, 2011 11:45 AM    Report this comment

Yes, Walt, pre-testing makes sense. With the benefit of doing this at high AGLs there is a chance of recovery and/or a bail out. I have been to Reno 8 times and I never went to see a crash or death.

On another point there seem to be claims of so many Gs being recorded via telemetry. Do we absolutely know there was telemetry of G forces? Source? However, video data could be used to calculate said Gs rather easily.

Posted by: ARTHUR THOMPSON | September 30, 2011 12:43 PM    Report this comment

My source for the 22+ G's was someone who is permanently located at Stead, has been involved in the races for many years, and has been talking with people up there. I assume it's correct because I have now seen that number from a different source as well.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 30, 2011 1:11 PM    Report this comment

Testing at high altitude, while a good idea, doesn't necessarily equate to the same results at low altitude. The higher altitude doesn't allow the aircraft to reach as high an indicated airspeed.

The less dense air doesn't equate to the same air density and pressures as low altitude.

At these speeds, mach is an issue. Even on most turboprops, there is a moveable "barber pole" that decreases the max speed as altitude is gained.

There is more cost than just the consumption of avgas involved. Most of these engines don't have a very long life at the power settings needed to achieve race speeds. The cost can easily reach 6 figures.

Do the testing at altitude--but to use that old hackneyed phrase, "pushing the (performance) envelope"--when you get beyond the known parameters for each aircraft/engine, you're a test pilot.

Posted by: jim hanson | September 30, 2011 1:53 PM    Report this comment


That's why I said to put it into a dive if necessary. If possible, you would match Reynold's number and Mach to race conditions (plus a bit more, if possible). The old adage about being a test pilot is true. A good test pilot is as much or more an engineer and data collector/interpreter as an airplane driver. A race with spectators is not the place to be a test pilot.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | September 30, 2011 2:21 PM    Report this comment

What I don't get here, Walt, is how you excite the surface being tested to explore flutter margins. Hard to do in a dive, no?

I have received a minor flood of e-mail on the telemetry, none of it confirmed by me personally. One said 11Gs in less than a second, the others 22.5 Gs, same period. One said fuel flow interruption after the pull up, then re-established after the pull. MAP in the dive at 105 inches.

I talked to an eyewitness last week who said he was sure the airplane was pointed right at him and he started to run. Made two steps before the airplane impacted several hundred feet away. At 500 MPH, it was descending at 44,000 FPM. No time to act.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 30, 2011 2:46 PM    Report this comment

Back to the human factors. I did a little research to see when the racing greats retired. Petty got out at 54, Mario Andretti at 54, Graham Hill at 46 (killed the same year in the crash of his Aztec), Jackie Stewart at 34, A.J. Foyt at 57, Parnelli Jones at 41, Phil Hill at 40.

Almost all of them quit when they stopped winning. Graham Hill couldn't even qualify in a race he had won several times. Why is this? Hard to say, I suppose. If you contend reaction times aren't that much slower and you can otherwise compensate, why does the performance fall off so much? One second on the racetrack is an eternity.

Flying an airplane in other than competition or high performance military is far less demanding, which is why so many of us can do it into our 80s with reasonable risk, assuming good health and decent eyesight.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 30, 2011 3:03 PM    Report this comment

" you excite the surface being tested to explore flutter margins. Hard to do in a dive, no? ..."

I did the flight tests for a Cessna 185 on amphib floats for an STC for drooped ailerons.

FAA wanted flutter testing up to Vne, at Vne, pop the yoke to 50% deflection and release. Obviously, I eased up to the speed about 10 kts at a time.

Offered th take the FAA guy with me for the final (once only) test. He said no, he'd take my word on it.

It takes a severe deck angle to get a 185 with big floats to Vne ;-)

Posted by: Edd Weninger | September 30, 2011 3:56 PM    Report this comment

Remember that at Reno he was flying about 5000' MSL so this same altitude at SL is 5000 AGL (and even more over the Salton Sea). Also flutter seems to be more a function of TAS rather than IAS. The 11 Gs seems plausible but I can't believe 22Gs. I don't think the wings would have stayed on any P51. Still I question telemetry aboard; surely the NTSB knows.

OK, back to the age thing. Hertz will not rent me a car in Ireland because of age but I easily pass a class II medical by a wide margin (Commercial rating). I even passed near vision requirements without glasses (I guess I am a good squinter.).

Posted by: ARTHUR THOMPSON | September 30, 2011 3:57 PM    Report this comment

I should have added, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | September 30, 2011 3:59 PM    Report this comment

When operating any vehicle, I'm safer older than younger! I was too daring, younger! I stay away from motorcycles, that's for sure! I've watched so many, young and old, perish in normal traffic, even on country roads.

Posted by: Ron Brown | September 30, 2011 9:07 PM    Report this comment

"I stay away from motorcycles, that's for sure! I've watched so many, young and old, perish in normal traffic, even on country roads."

Sigh. I guess I react to this the same way I do when someone says they don't fly in little airplanes because they're too dangerous. The statement implies that a motorcyclist is a stationary target "in normal traffic" and that only random chance keeps him/her from being killed. Same logic applies to small airplane safety.

The reality is that the rider/pilot's skill, attitude, experience and awareness has a far greater outcome on relative risk and safety than does the random element.
In other words, as a rider/pilot, I have the most votes in the accident scenario, reducing the random chance to an acceptable low.

I view the risk of motorcycling as higher than that of flying an airplane, but not so much higher as to curl up in a fetal position and turn out the lights. I would apply the same logic to older pilots flying and even racing. Mitigate the risk as much as possible, stay in the bubble and risk is acceptable. At some point in the aging process, due to various infirmities, it will not be. As I've opined here, the trick is knowing when the compensations no longer work and when to call it quits.

Also, you say "safer older." I would argue that "safer" is an illusion. Safe itself is an illusion. What you have is a reduction in perceived risk, even though actual risk may be little changed.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 1, 2011 6:56 AM    Report this comment

What is "your" conclusion of how old is too old?

Lynn Farnsworth
Reno Race Pilot

Posted by: Lynn Farnsworth | October 1, 2011 7:42 AM    Report this comment

A fundamental difference in danger between a motorcycle is that the cyclist, no matter how careful, is overwhelmingly subject to the behavior of others assuming he intends to really use it for transportation. With flying the pilot's behavior dominates risk.

Posted by: ARTHUR THOMPSON | October 1, 2011 9:21 AM    Report this comment

How old is too old? I'll quote myself here:"I don't have a ready solution for this conundrum, other than to suggest minor strategies to defuse some of the risk."

I don't think I could put a number on it because it is so up to the individual and individuals vary. But that's not the same as saying age never, doesn't or can't matter. We all know that it can.

The point of the discussion here to have people think about it when it comes time to decide for themselves.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 1, 2011 10:30 AM    Report this comment

"A fundamental difference in danger between a motorcycle is that the cyclist, no matter how careful, is overwhelmingly subject to the behavior of others assuming he intends to really use it for transportation."

This is the stationary target theory and actually reflects only a vague understanding of motorcycle risk factors. Some numbers are illuminating:

79 percent of motorcycle accidents involve frontal collisions. Either the cyclist hit something in front of him or, as common, a left-turning car cut across a lane. Nearly 50 percent are single-vehicle--the cyclist hit something or ran off the road. No help from other vehicles.

Digging deeper into these global stats reveals that the vast majority, including many of the two-vehicle crashes, are the result of rider error. Thus, as in aviation, risk responds to training and skill and having both reduces it.

Globally, on an accidents-per-mile basis, motorcycles have 35 times the rate of cars. Big number. But much of it is due to rider error, compounded by driver error that could have been mitigated by the motorcyclist.

Auto crash stats are similar, with 40 percent being single vehicle, 60 percent two or more. The "other guy" risk is higher for cars. The fatal rate for motorcyclists is much higher because there's no occupant protection to speak of.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 1, 2011 11:01 AM    Report this comment

I don't mean to minimize the risk here. I understand it pretty well. But anyone who thinks the risk is higher just because of mistakes drivers make isn't paying attention, literally and figuratively. An alert, skilled rider can mitigate risk substantially. But it will never approach the lower risk of riding in a car. Or even a light airplane, for that matter.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 1, 2011 11:02 AM    Report this comment


So I guess the "bottom Line" is, there are so many variables that no one number can apply to all?

Posted by: Lynn Farnsworth | October 1, 2011 2:39 PM    Report this comment

I don't see how one size fits all, Lynn. The old airline age 60 rule had nothing to do with performance or safety, but labor politics.

I think it's possible to sink too far into denial about loss of skill and acuity, just as it's possible to know when it's time to either quit or modify what and the way you fly.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 1, 2011 3:02 PM    Report this comment

Well Paul, my position all along was that it is not an "age" thing but and "ability" thing. C:

Posted by: Lynn Farnsworth | October 1, 2011 6:26 PM    Report this comment

I hate to add any validity to the preponderance of motorcycle accidents being due to rider error, but recently here, Paul, a guy ran off a curve into a wash, tossed around a bit and punctured a lung. He had a smart phone taped to his tank and was Texting!

Do keep it high brow on the bike, eh? Now we car drivers gotta watch out for texting motorcycle riders, ugh!

Posted by: David Miller | October 1, 2011 8:53 PM    Report this comment

Hey, I'm 73 and I'm just was the question again?

Posted by: John Wilson | October 1, 2011 10:10 PM    Report this comment

The general level of skill and judgment among motorcycle riders is not necessarily high, that's for sure. Florida, for example, is a no helmet state so the typical stylish rider around here is in shorts, flip flops and a t-shirt. Gives me the willies just to look at them.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 2, 2011 5:12 AM    Report this comment

I think that everyone should realize that God has plan for us. Jerimiah 29, 11-17... no matter how great of shape physically or mentally ... you are you are leaving when he says your time up then it is up. God takes older people so your chances of departing older is greater than being younger. I started lessons in 1958 have a bunch of ratings and experience but today at 68 I don't load up a number of people in the PA31-350 w/o having a pilot in the right seat. Be sensible about age no matter how great you are as you are not invincible. For you fitness guys I ran a 13.1 mile race this AM and there was a heart attack on the course with age of 51 in good physical condition.

Posted by: Carl Gritzmaker | October 2, 2011 3:19 PM    Report this comment

My Mother quit driving the day she asked me to drive her to the DMV so she could renew her drivers license. She came out of the building within 10 minutes, an amazingly short time time unwilling to say how she got through the line so quickly. On the drive home she then handed me her drivers license telling me to look at it, which I did without seeing anything unusual until she pointed me to the expiration date. She was a year early. Without another word about this, and nNot long after, the old Buick was towed away for salvage.

Posted by: Craig Cooper | October 3, 2011 6:03 AM    Report this comment

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did Mr.Leeward have a medical issue on the course and pass out, causing the pitch-up ( at the worst possible place on the course ), or did the aircraft have a mechanical problem causing the pitch-up and subsequent pilot incapacity and crash? I hope the rumor is true that there was some medical telemetry that was documented by the race crew which will allow the NTSB to determine the sequence of this tragic crash. Should Mr. Leeward have allowed a younger pilot to fly the aircraft ? Did he have a physical training program in the weeks before the race to increase his capacity to take G's ? I have no answers, but I await the final report. I think the Reno Air Races are gone for at least a year, if not forever, due to this incident.

Posted by: Richard Smith | October 3, 2011 8:49 AM    Report this comment

Richard, Do you think the other modified P-51s in racing incidents with similar failures provide a clue?

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | October 3, 2011 10:48 AM    Report this comment

I like Paul's Duc Duck. It fills in where experience thins out. I've had my share of near-fuel exhaustion incidents in planes and trucks, crashes on road and trail bikes, lost many friends smarter and faster than I in civil & military aircraft, combat and road vehicles. In addition to humping an M-1 Garand for a living I was a little right of show center at the Ramstein '88 airshow, which fulfilled my lifetime requirement for carnage-as-entertainment.

At age 60 I joined the Over The Hill Gang, a group of skiers who recognize that over the hill we're picking up speed. They are ranchers, Doctors, loggers, undertakers, dentists, surgeons and a token pilot, all learning to do it with grace, some better than others.

I guess my Duc Duck is an engine monitor, fuel totalizer, flight timer and XM weather that nag and remind me of things I forget, and a sage placard on the panel: "Don't hit anything, run out of gas or into weather you cannot handle."

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | October 3, 2011 12:03 PM    Report this comment

The only age related judgement call by Jim was the fact that he ignored several people when they told him he should not be flying that airplane with only one elevator trim tab operable. I'm bet RARA was warned but turned it's head the other way.

Posted by: Patty Haley | October 3, 2011 12:55 PM    Report this comment

I'm 74, have been flying since 1953 and have been a CFI since 1955. I currently fly my SR-22 an average of 200 hrs/year. I know I am blessed with good health and a continuing opportunity to fly. I believe, to some extent, this is a self-fulfilling cycle. Flying regularly contributes to keeping me alert and my head in the game and that helps me with respect to being comfortable with flying a lot. However, I know it will come to an end some day. Thus I have this quote on my desk: "Enjoy it, savor it, make the best of it. It doesn't last forever." Wise guidance from British Airways Concorde Captain Brian Walpole, Retired.

Posted by: Bill Castlen | October 3, 2011 4:42 PM    Report this comment

Paul, do you think you can install a "Like" button after each of these comments? Or even a "Dislike" button?

Posted by: Patty Haley | October 6, 2011 4:24 PM    Report this comment

"How Do You Know When You're Too Old to Fly?"

Immediately before impact, I suppose.
The same realization just before impact also happens to those who are too dumb, too brave, or too trusting.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 7, 2011 2:22 PM    Report this comment

Leave 'em laughing, or at least wondering... good one, Mark. Spit some tea down my shirt, tho.

Posted by: David Miller | October 7, 2011 11:44 PM    Report this comment

How Do You Know When You're Too Old to Fly? Whenever one gets up more than once during the night and then finally wide-awake at 0400, turns the computer on and instinctually logs in to AVWEB and reads "this conundrum". Oh, I did flush the toilet, thanks.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 9, 2011 9:40 AM    Report this comment

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