Too Damned Old


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?)