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.