Too Damned Old

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In last week's blog, I recounted a conversation I had with my friend TK, who at 55 was considering himself a little long in the tooth to take up motorcycling. That naturally led to considering how old is too old to take up flying airplanes or jumping out of them. Should people of a certain age not even consider these activities? He was thinking no to the riding question.

My answer is kneejerk: Hell yes you should consider it. Attaching an age limit to activities like this strikes me as a comprehensive admission of defeat, if not a descent into self-pity. If you establish that you can't or shouldn't do something as your analytical starting point, haven't you thereby determined that you can't? You've let fear or reticence displace confidence and competence before you've even started. I simply have no patience with this and neither should you.  

A few years ago, I low-sided a bike at the racetrack. It happens to everyone eventually. If it doesn't, you're not trying very hard and might as well stay home. I bruised my foot and went to a doc-in-the-box to have it checked out. Peering at the chart, then at me and back to the chart, then at me, the doc asked, "How old are you?" The rising inflection suggested he wasn't merely fact-checking a birthdate for the insurance form, but expressing mild astonishment that a geezer like me doesn't have the good sense to stand down. Interestingly, before I left the examining room, he went out of his way to withdraw the implication because he, of all people, knew that here in Florida, the medical community exerts great effort to keep older people moving, involved and engaged in the name of improved quality of life. For some people, that's group jazzercise in the warm end of the pool or evening cooking classes. %$^% that. I'm going jumping, flying or riding. Not to mention that these activities allow me to maintain the high hydrocarbon lifestyle I've ascribed to these many years. (How do you think we keep the pool warm?) What the Doc should have said is, "Hey, if you're going to screw around with trail braking, you have to taper off quicker at the tip in." OK, Doc, got it.

Strident declarations of certainty—which I'll concede to being fond of—always have at least one "but" attached. In this case, the but is a qualification: Physical fitness. I'm a religious zealot about this and I believe the mental sharpness required for flying (or riding or jumping) flows from it. It encompasses the right diet, weight control, cardio and weight training. I do about 10 hours a week, but I know people my age or older who do more or who can—and do—run marathons. I could probably get there, but I'm not good at pain suppression and Advil does only so much.

And we're talking about learning flying here, not necessarily continuing to participate after years of doing it, although this may be a distinction without a difference. Because I've always viewed flying as primarily a mental game, it doesn't require the stamina or physical dexterity that sports like tennis, basketball or even golf do. This will be a barrier for certain people of any age but abundant research shows that cognitive function declines with age, although not consistently from person to person. The clinical data also shows that there's a measurable correlation between exercise and cognitive function. Exercise makes you smarter and you're never too old to start.

I'm such a nutcase about this that I really have to hold my tongue sometimes at the risk of becoming a proselytizing bore. Weak physical conditioning is not an inevitable state and avoiding it has such profound benefits that I don't understand why anyone skips the gym, the bicycle, the running track or the pool. It takes determination and focus, but then so does flying. At least that's what my skydiver friend Steve told me over the weekend. He does t'ai chi every morning. He's 83. Jumps every Saturday.

When I put my instructor hat on and advise people about learning to fly or pursuing an advanced rating, I tell them not to worry about the stick-and-rudder manipulation of the airplane. A monkey can do that, as Ham the Astrochimp proved 55 years ago this month, the year my friend TK was born. Ultimately, flying is really about analytical performance under duress, especially instrument flying. In my view, the duress comes from trying to apply critical decision-making information in a situation narrowed by compressed time and smeared by adrenaline. (Is this a parallel entry or a teardrop? What's the reciprocal of 220? Am I west or east of the airport? Should this be to or from?)

There are myriad details in learning to fly, some of which are actually important. So my theory is that he (or she) who has mastered the knowledge base with as few gaps as possible will have little trouble with the actual physical task of flying. And these days, the required knowledge base is larger than it has ever been—everything from knowing the G1000 cold, to pulling up apps on an iPad to remembering the stupid airport gate code. It used to be a lot simpler.

The need to learn all this is a frustrating barrier. It is, nonetheless, learnable. It may take more time and the focus of a monk, but it can be done. Plant yourself in the airplane with an external power unit and you can get the G1000 down in a few hours, perhaps at any age, absent any exceptional memory deficit issues. It's just not easy and it does take desire. No one can hand it to you. I would apply the same logic, to varying degrees, to the skydiving and motorcycling I mentioned in the last blog. These are more physical activities, but they don't require the body of a 20-year-old.  

Just as there are limits, there are options. For the past six months, we've been trying to sell a share in our Cub partnership. I keep getting tire-kicker calls from guys who I can tell are in their 70s, if not older. For them, the Cub fantasy is a trip down nostalgia lane, but it is still fantasy. I have learned that the Cub is not a good old-guy airplane, chiefly because it's a bitch to get in and out of. It requires flexibility and upper arm strength to lever yourself into the thing. I'm okay with that thus far, but I can't say I relish it. A guy I've flown with who's a tad overweight and not in shape can't get into the front seat at all. So for old guys, the Cub is probably a bad LSA choice. But a Champ is much better and so is an Ercoupe. And I guess the Cub would be too for that 10th percentile septuagenarian who's running the marathons that I can't. They're out there. Maybe you're one of them.

A few years ago, AOPA Air Safety Institute published this report (PDF) on the aging pilot. If you've thought about the impact of age on flying, you won't find anything remarkable in it at all, but it's useful to see it stated in black and white, especially the part about exercise. The report recommended 30 minutes a day, which I find minimal, but the clinicals show that even this level of exercise is quite beneficial.

So if a 60-year-old approached me about learning to fly, I'd say sure. Talk to me after you've taken the written and you're on the way to being comfortable with the head work. The rest of it is the easy—and the fun—part. And don't forget this: You need a certain amount of denial to engage in any of these activities. Denial isn't quite the same as self-confidence, but they're probably first cousins. If you can't summon that up, admit defeat and stick to group aquatics.

Oh, then there's the tricky business of deciding when you should quit due to age-induced decline. I am singularly unqualified to offer an opinion on this for reasons that should be obvious. I will, however, admit my lap times are getting slower. Probably tire choice. (See what I did there?)

Comments (28)

Yeah, I saw what you did there, Paul. And I would add that I think it's better to go down swinging, so just keep on keepin' on. Good blog post.

Posted by: ANDREW PATTERSON | January 31, 2016 6:38 PM    Report this comment

We are blessed with good genetics. I know of some contemporaries who are not in great shape or worse. Some is due to life style and past transgressions and some is due to coming up short in the gene pool. I flew with a WWII B17 pilot some years back. He was a great stick. I asked him how he would know when it was time to hang up his wings. His answer was "when I can't climb up to check the Cessna's tanks." I conducted several BFRs with him and he was always the professional, well prepared and enthusiastic. Then one year he didn't call, so I called him. His answer was that due to declining health, he couldn't check the tanks. He was content to fly with his nephew. He has since gained a new set of wings.

So, I think for me, that will be one test or perhaps, when I can't climb the 105 foot aerial ladder in full air pack and turn out gear, or . . . (fill in the blanks)

I do agree, don't let the calendar dictate your activities. Hang around with young people and as you said stay fit. Oh yes, thanks Ma (age 98) and Dad for passing down our family gene pool fortune.

I still have a 20 year old brain trapped inside a 69 year old body.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | January 31, 2016 8:47 PM    Report this comment

The plan is to live longer and in good physical and mental health. It's in the genes and the beans. Y'all stay warm.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 31, 2016 9:32 PM    Report this comment

My grandfather instructed well into his 80's and I believe he stopped doing primary training at age 84 or 85. He regained his medical and physical fitness after a light stroke at age 67 (grounded for ~ a year) and developed Parkinson's disease, seemingly as a side effect of the early stroke medications. Most of his age related issues were more than compensated by his experience and by maintaining proficiency in the aircraft he flew. He quit flying voluntarily and without any sort of intervention when he didn't feel comfortable anymore doing checkouts in complex aircraft with greenhorns.

After spending my childhood and teen years flying with him, I never once wondered if it was time to stop, nobody ever had to propose the idea to him. One day he just stated: "Its time to be done." He had flown for 64 years when he walked away. Quitting driving wasn't nearly as easy for him and he had some hair-raising driving events I remember vividly.

I think the important thing that makes getting done with flying more bearable is remaining involved and included among the next generation of pilots. Nothing feels worse than seeing an old eagle with clipped wings. They have stories to tell and things to teach and I am sure some of them often wonder if they could still do it. Fly with them and pull them closer, never park them on the senior bench.

Posted by: Jason Baker | February 1, 2016 7:21 AM    Report this comment

I couldn't agree more, Paul. I've always lived by the adage that "You're only as old as you act", and I intend to follow that until I leave this mortal coil. You may slow down, but as long as you can physically and mentally manage your hobbies safely, age shouldn't stop you. Age is, after all, just a number if you have the proper mental outlook. I just turned 63, and I still ride, fly and jump too.

BTW, I agree with your Dr's tip about trail braking. But just in case, ATGATT forever! We've all been there. LOL

Posted by: Ron Earp | February 1, 2016 10:18 AM    Report this comment

Over and over I read why something is or isn't / has or hasn't / can or couldn't and it always (ALWAYS!) comes back to psychology.

God this sounds (and is) cliche'd but seriously psychology is the only barrier. What's funny is most people (men mostly) have no idea psychology is at work.

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | February 1, 2016 10:25 AM    Report this comment

"He has since gained a new set of wings..."

What a great story Leo. You should take great pride in having been this man's CFI.

Posted by: A Richie | February 1, 2016 10:48 AM    Report this comment

The link to the ASI study on "The Aging Pilot" leads to a page that says "We've encountered an error, please try again"... hope this not a cruel joke!

Posted by: A Richie | February 1, 2016 10:53 AM    Report this comment

Sorry about that. Fixed the link. Should work now.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 1, 2016 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Hey Paul, I'm with you on this subject. I'll be 74 in a few months. And I consider flying a great motivator for reasonable physical fitness.

I have a Beech T-34B bought as a retirement present. Wonderful, fun flying airplane. Except the Navy did not need a step for the 20-25 year old students and instructors to get up on the wing. A few years ago, I screwed up a couple of mounts/dismounts. I actually thought about adding a Bonanza type step. Lots of reasons to not do that; might need a field approval, wrong side mount, etc., and in the back of my mind, queries if I needed it when I wore a skirt. So I began to think about replacing it with something like a Van's RV or Mooney which are only step-stool high.

One evening, I was sitting in the plane for about 15 minutes in the evening after shut down, considering the sale. I had just finished a pleasant hour of lazy-eights, ridge running and canyon carving. With the gyros wound down and the exhaust manifolds cooling, the thought came to me, "this is too nice a plane to sell because I can't vault up on the wing". Anyway, within a few months, I had lost about 25 Lbs, improved leg and arm strength, and am good to go.

I also own a '79 Honda CBX bought new, maintained by myself, and ridden every year (except one) since new. I was thinking about trading it for something smaller because pushing it around the hangar was becoming a difficult, and if I dropped it (gently), I needed to call someone to help lift it up. Haven't solved that yet, but am still better at not dropping it.


Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 1, 2016 12:02 PM    Report this comment

This topic has finally gotten me to register and chime in.

One issue that lurks with aging is the onset of Alzheimers and dementia. It is good and appropriate to say we will all continue flying until we see that we can't perform safely anymore. However the cognitive decline with dementia is insidious enough that the victim doesn't even recognize it. I have had personal exposure to this situation. My father was an instructor pilot in WW2 and flew, instructed, and maintained airplanes as a hobby most of the rest of his life after that. He had thousands of hours and many many people taught (although not me and that's another story). None of us recognized the signs of decline, however. At one point he told me about floating 3/4 of the way down a 3000' runway before seeing the the wind sock was pointed in the opposite direction. I attributed that to over familiarity with the airport in question. Another time I watched him unable to correctly comprehend a parts manual to select the proper sump drain valve for a friends Tri Pacer. I attributed this to my not understanding the cataloging of aircraft parts. One more time I watched him unable to add up a column of numbers in a checkbook and attributed that to just being in a hurry. Each of these, as I now know, was a sign of dementia onset. Finally it was a car accident that stopped things and thankfully everyone survived but afterwards he was fully incapable.

My point in all this is to say that it is correct for us all to be watching ourselves but we also need someone else watching for signs of decline. Then we need to hope if that someone questions our proficiency we have the courage and faculties to understand what is being said. For me personally it means I will be stopping flying earlier than absolutely necessary because I know I won't be able to recognize signs in myself. Still I've had a good time at it with only a few years left to do it.

Returning to my father, the last coherent thing he ever said to me in the nursing home had to do with flying and how far I had come that day to see him. A little thing but very nice to remember.

Posted by: Charlie Hopkins | February 1, 2016 12:07 PM    Report this comment

Awesome piece! This is a huge issue for the great mass of baby boomers who have changed most of society in some way as they came along, and are doing so with aging.

Personally, at 63, my best days are ahead, This includes flyiing and probably motor racing as well. (obstacles are all financial, but working hard on it).

Actually, I think the ironic references to ourselves as geezers doesn't really's as if we are trying to force a language of another time and culture. Perhaps we can just not go there at all? I don't feel frail, forgetful, cranky or otherwise geezer-like. Yes, the body has some limitations, but they're more than compensated by the emotional maturity I've gained.

For those lucky enough to have good genes and start every day with a purpose, there is an entire extra generation to be lived.

Posted by: Jonathan Micocci | February 1, 2016 12:13 PM    Report this comment

I fully agree with your position. Age should not determine your activites so long as you are mentally and physically capable. Four years ago I purchased an airplane after a nearly 30 year hiatus on flying. Now that I am retired, I have the time to devote more attention to flying and enjoying all it has to offer. As you said, I admit that the mental part of flying (i.e. the new airspace rules and procedures) is more of a challenge than the actual flying. But, the mental part just requires more time and effort than it might have three decades ago. With regard to physical limitations there are plenty of optoins as well. For example, I decided against buying a nice Mooney 201 and chose a Cessna Cardinal RG instead. Not because I couldn't squeeze into the Mooney, but because I just liked the ease of access to the Cardinal. I have a friend who is paraplegic that outfitted a Cardinal with hand controls and flies all over the country. He can climb into the pilot's seat, fold his wheel chair and put it in the back seat without any assistance. His only limitation is checking the fuel tanks during preflight.

I also just upgraded the plane's panel with the latest generation avionics to take advantage of all that the new technology offers. That adds to the learning curve on the mental end, but I look forward to the challenge. As far as cognitive decline is concerned, your family physician is probably your best resource on that. He (she) should routinely be testing any senior citizen's mental acuity just like they monitor your physical capacities. At this age, if you aren't seeing your doctor for a good physical once a year, you really need to start. Otherwise, as Chuck Yeager said, "Press On".

Posted by: John McNamee | February 1, 2016 1:04 PM    Report this comment

I am humbled to have shared the same cockpit. All of these men still instill a sense of awe.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | February 1, 2016 1:05 PM    Report this comment

"My point in all this is to say that it is correct for us all to be watching ourselves but we also need someone else watching for signs of decline. Then we need to hope if that someone questions our proficiency we have the courage and faculties to understand what is being said."

This is something I'm having to face in my flying club. I look for a trend of actions that indicate declining or flawed decision making, which means any one (or even two) minor incidents are forgivable, but when you get to three or more in a fairly short time span, that starts to set off warning indicators for me. I hope when I get to that point that I can recognize my own decline and accept that my flying days (or at least, days of acting as PIC) are over.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 1, 2016 1:47 PM    Report this comment

"If you establish that you can't or shouldn't do something as your analytical starting point, haven't you thereby determined that you can't? "

Maybe. If it's a statement that sounds definite, sure. Walk away. But many of us need peer approval or some convincing to allay our fears too, as in a cry for help. As the listener, determine that, then help with their first baby steps, if you want to as a friend.

So many people were looking at me as if I had a bomb strapped to my chest when driving my classic daily driver ragtop sans seatbelts and airbags and collapsable steering wheel, and etc. that I installed the belts just to help them stay a bit calmer. (what a guy, eh?) So I can relate to the doc-in-a-box (lol) when it comes to the great leveler of creativity and independence - the Social Consciousness.

It's insidious, even gets into the 'good' genes and dementia discussions when considering individual pursuits. Careful with that kind of talk...

I'm thinking about converting the car to electric as a new project now. I'm in the 40 miles per day or less crowd so the vehicle, mission and opportunity is solid. I just have to forget about a ROI financially, at least. But it might help keep my mind working at least learning all about electricity and such. I hear it's contained by an essential component, magic smoke - and if the smoke gets out so does the electricity? Just wondering...

I did one static line jump in 1965 with a high school friend, I don't think they had the instructor piggyback method then. All this talk has got me thinking about it again. (audible swallow).

Are the Stones still touring? Maybe there's my answer, then.

Posted by: David Miller | February 1, 2016 2:13 PM    Report this comment

My oldest private pilot student started his course at age 72. Of all the 40 + PPL's I have trained he was one of my favorites. He got such a kick out of learning to fly it was like he was a teenager again, I remember I wishing all my students had such a great attitude.

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | February 1, 2016 8:00 PM    Report this comment

Great article. Paul, you mentioned in a previous post that one reason you fly the cub is because maintaining a 3rd class medical is such a pain. Not to get personal but this would indicate a condition that disqualifies you from a 3rd class medical. This is ridiculous beyond belief. You are staying in great shape and take your health seriously. How many other people are in the same situation?

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | February 1, 2016 8:36 PM    Report this comment

An age and health survey would be interesting!!!

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | February 1, 2016 8:37 PM    Report this comment

This topic is getting old and so am I. Therefore, I've decided to ignore the neysayers and continue flying until after Mick Jagger goes west.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 1, 2016 9:34 PM    Report this comment

Wow Paul. I started wanting to quote those parts of your article I really liked and found myself quoting your whole piece. So what's the point, I thought. Great article in every respect except I prefer aspirin.
At least now I know I'm not the only crazy who loves doing what I do. I'll stop when I'm in the grave.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | February 2, 2016 5:24 AM    Report this comment

Whole lotta geezers in this space. One of my favorite students was 82 when he started; 83 when he got his certificate. Along the way, he bought a C-150 Aerobat. On day, he got to see how manuverable his bird was at tree-trunk-level, when a (nordo?) Cub decided to take off straight ino our takeoff - in the opposite direction. He asked whether it was a sign that he should quit. I told him that it was a sign to stay alert for the shit that happens in this life - in airplanes or otherwise. He smiled and kept flying.

For what it's worth, the handful of students who had to listen to my suggestion that they should consider taking up bowling as an alternative to flying, all were in their 20s. Go figure...

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 2, 2016 6:48 AM    Report this comment

"Great article. Paul, you mentioned in a previous post that one reason you fly the cub is because maintaining a 3rd class medical is such a pain. Not to get personal but this would indicate a condition that disqualifies you from a 3rd class medical."

In my flying club, probably 1/4 to 1/3 of our members require getting a special issuance even though any sane doctor would consider them to be in great health. From what I can tell, it is often a lengthy and costly process. I haven't had to go through it myself, but my last medical was held up for a little while due to an approved medication I was taking at the time, and that was bad enough. It also means, it doesn't matter if you're young (or young-ish, like myself) or old, the 3rd class medical can be a pain at any age (even if it doesn't require a special issuance).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 2, 2016 7:36 AM    Report this comment

... you may just get too old to fly ...

... but you should *instruct* until the day you die ...

... the words in books only tell part of the story ...

... so grab a young 'un, and tell 'em the glory.

Posted by: Phil DeRosier | February 2, 2016 2:16 PM    Report this comment

Bravo, Paul. I quit club racing bikes at 29 after a blowing out my knee on the track and thinking I was way too old to be there in the first place. Fast forward to today and I just punched my private pilot ticket at 47. Too old? Not even close. My only regret is not having figured this out a lot sooner.

Posted by: Robert Hoffman | February 2, 2016 7:47 PM    Report this comment

Congrats on the PP, Robert.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 3, 2016 6:55 AM    Report this comment

The funny thing is that when you look at professional airline pilots in a group, for every fit, alert looking one, there will be three distinctly, flabby, grey faced, rings under the eyes types who can hardly carry their flight bags from one security check to another.
One suspects the doctors who do their exams are not the most demanding.
Still, that is what co-pilots are for.

Posted by: John Patson | February 3, 2016 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Although the dreaded eight-oh is only a couple of years away now, I still have no trouble mounting up in a Cub or squeezing into a Lancair, so the physical part isn't yet a problem. And when I no longer can do that sort of thing, it will be obvious.

On the other hand, I find that my personal mental fitness level is harder to evaluate. As Charlie Hopkins & others point out, the decline is typically slow and insidious. Definitely, I can tell I am not as "sharp" as I once was, but how much less? And how much does it really matter?

Yes, I do forget things more often, but so far it involves short term items of peripheral importance (like what the wife told me about groceries while I was under the car replacing the fuel pump) rather than well-learned important stuff like planning for & flying a cross country trip. So I keep flying, but I do try to take notice of any trend toward making bonehead mistakes or oversights. And what more can we do?

Posted by: John Wilson | February 3, 2016 5:03 PM    Report this comment

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