Pilot Age-Just A Number?

Thoughts to consider as we face another birthday.


Advancing age has its benefits when it comes to flying—wisdom and experience are two, and perhaps greater financial security to allow us to indulge our aviation passion. But despite increasing longevity, much as we fancy achieving the ripe age of 969 years as Methuselah, we’re a long way from that (50 is the new 70).

For those younger than 40 years, keep reading—you’ll see why later. Let’s review how the general aviation pilot population is aging and discuss research exploring the effect of the march-of-time on flying performance. We’ll also summarize research on accident rate and types of mishaps older pilots are more prone to. Finally, we’ll wrap up with tips to enhance IFR flight safety as one continues into the golden years.

Pilot Population Is Aging

Our FAA Safety Team holds monthly Houston-area meetings coordinated by a highly efficient team lead. Looking at the attendees it’s obvious that we’re not a youthful set. No, this is not an anecdotal observation specific to Houston-area airmen. The fact is that the US pilot population is getting older.

Between 2011 and 2015 the number of pilots 70 years and older rose from 20,000 to 32,000. There is more than a smattering of octogenarian (and older) pilots too—the count of active (i.e. holding a medical certificate) airmen of this age group increased from 1,508 to 2,305 between 2002 and 2016—that’s a 50-percent increase.

But remember that, as an aggregate, the general aviation pilot population is shrinking. Based on FAA statistics, the number of active private pilots decreased from 241,045 (2003) to 162,455 (2017)—a 33-percent drop. Recall that unlike air carrier operations (where pilots must hang up their hats at 65 (FAR 121.383) there is no upper age for general aviation pilots. Satisfy a flight review and physical (be it a Class III or Basic Med) and you’re fit to fly-well—maybe or maybe not.

Battle With Mother Nature

The truth is that, as we age, we’re fighting an uphill battle with the living world. Our vision deteriorates, the speed of mental processing slows, short term memory is impacted and motor skills suffer (activating that touch screen on your spanking new Garmin 750 might prove challenging even in smooth air). How do these physical degradations impact flight operations? Two research studies addressed this question. In the first, IFR pilots were tasked with shooting ILS approaches in a Frasca simulator programmed for IMC. The researcher assessed flight performance largely based on lateral deviation from the “localizer.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, pilots above age 40 showed less precise flight control (more meandering left and right of the localizer) compared with their younger brethren.

On the bright side, the researchers found that expertise partly offset the decline in performance with CFI-Instrument airmen faring better than IFR-rated private pilots. In the second study, again using a flight simulator, VFR-pilots were challenged with instrument failures and decision-making regarding cross-wind landings and memory recall both assessed. The researchers identified deficient memory recall of landing weather information and noted a decline in the speed of mental processing with creeping age. Nevertheless, cognitive assessment was superior to chronological age in predicting flight performance. Maybe that’s not too surprising—a 40-year-old may look/perform like a 75-year-old and vice versa—genetics and lifestyle (the proverbial burning the candle at both ends applies here) are major contributors.

Advancing Age And Accidents

Of course, flight simulator studies are just that. The bigger question is how older pilots fare in terms of flight safety—is this group more accident-prone and are they (more or less) likely to be involved in a fatal mishap? A Johns Hopkins University study showed that general aviation pilots 65 years or older, had a nearly three-fold higher risk of being involved in an accident than those aged 18-24.

No, these results weren’t due to older pilots flying more often since the study adjusted the accident count for differences in flight time accrued by the two age groups. But there is some good news. Recent research on octogenarian and older pilots suggests that, while they are more likely to incur an accident, they are not at higher risk for a fatal outcome.

One thing that was apparent with the latter study was a higher percentage of landing accidents by the octogenarian pilots (31- vs. 17-percent). While we know that instrument flight is demanding, landing is arguably the most challenging phase of flight. As seasoned IFR pilots, the trials and tribulations of landing an aircraft might seem in the distant past harking back to our primary training. Ever wonder why mastering this phase of flight was so difficult back then?

Remember, there’s a lot involved—a rapidly changing visual picture, shifting/gusting winds all requiring well-timed hand/foot-eye coordination to transition the aircraft from typically a nose-down (for a light aircraft) to a near-level attitude just above the runway. Now, here’s where an age factor might throw a wrench into the works. Worsening vision, slower mental processing time and poor eye-hand/foot coordination can conspire to make what seemed to be such an easy task in our post-training halcyon flying days to be more of a challenge as we age.

Suggestions For IFR Pilots

If you are passionate about flying, and the prospect of losing that privilege is daunting, here are a few suggestions for enhancing safety in the instrument flight environment as one ages. Some of these tips are drawn from the Air Safety Institute recommendations. However, a few suggestions have come from my personal observations of a 98-year-old ex-USAF pilot-friend whom I had the privilege of flying with on a regular basis for nine years (invariably our flights were in the IFR system). He was the second oldest active general aviation pilot in the world at the time.

IFR is challenging and deserves respect (regardless of age). Why not fly like the “pros” with a “first officer?” Pilots flying transport category aircraft must have two warm bodies up front (that doesn’t include “George”). Agree how to divvy up the work load before launching. Often younger pilots are more ‘button-savvy’— have them handle the avionics.

Consider increasing visibility minimums. Sure, in the “old days” you could shoot the ILS to 200 feet AGL partial-panel, but if you find the CDI pegging on a precision approach, it might be time to be more generous with the lateral/vertical visibilities. As for visibility, are our eyeballs up to snuff for picking up the runway lights looming out of the murk or reading the approach chart? For near-vision, do you constantly have to “pinch” the tablet screen to zoom in to read the text?

A Class III medical requires 20/40 vision and will be evaluated every other year for a pilot 40 or older. Here’s the curve ball though. For pilots availing themselves of BasicMed, remember that vision is per the state’s driving license requirements. Some states allow restricted driving with 20/70 vision. Also, since BasicMed rules require a physical exam by a state-licensed physician only once every four years, to keep safe, pilots should schedule a visual acuity test with an optometrist or ophthalmologist annually.

Just as with vision, hearing loss is common with aging. Communications is a vital part of IFR flight— you’re always talking to ATC whereas a VFR pilot may only have to listen up at the departure and arrival airports. If “say again” is a frequent utterance, consider purchasing an active noising-cancelling headset.

As for deterioration of memory recall, just as we were taught in our instrument training, make good use of pen/paper (or tablet) for the ATIS, altitude and vector assignments.

Finally, what about your “steed?” Sure, big and fast is many a pilot’s dream—but that means things happen quicker and there’s more to do—especially during departure and approach. This could be an issue with slower response times. Is it time to down-grade to a slower more docile beast—say a non-complex, lower performance airplane?

In the end, we all need to know our limitations. Respect your advancing years. Heeding some of the above tips and who knows—like my chum Jack you might fly IFR safety till the ripe age of 98 as he did. Farewell Jack.

Further Reading: Aging and the General Aviation Pilot, Air Safety Institute. Research and Recommendations, 2014.

Douglas Boyd is a retired Professor at The University of Texas, and a Commercial, SMEL and instrument rated pilot.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue ofIFR Refreshermagazine.

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