Managing Flying Risk – Ageing pilots
How old is too old?
In humans, ageing represents the accumulation of changes in a human being over time and can encompass physical, psychological, and social changes. Reaction time, for example, may slow with age, while memories and general knowledge typically increase.
Relatively little information exists pertaining specifically to pilots over the age of 70. One GA-specific study based on US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident data found that, among other things that older pilots made fewer errors among males age 55-63. However, that this does not address the relative accident involvement (or rate) among the various groups of pilots studied; US general aviation accident data has determined that certain groups of accident pilots aged 60 and over were involved in more accidents when compared to others examined. It’s worth noting that all of these studies were based on analysis of NTSB accident data. Aside from the potential shortcomings of the data, such analyses do not account for potentially higher exposure among older pilots—in other words, the possibility that older pilots (perhaps having more leisure time and/or money) fly more often than their younger counterparts. Nor do they take into account possible differences in the nature of that flying and the severity of the associated accidents. Without data to eliminate these and other confounding factors, solid claims about the relative safety of different pilot age groups are difficult to make.
Results of US tests in simulators have reinforced the theory that experience generally works to offset the negative impacts of aging, and may, furthermore, play a greater role in compensating for those areas that are more strongly affected by the aging process (e.g., communication).
The picture that seems to emerge from a range of studies is of a mild but measurable decrease in overall performance with age, offset to varying degrees by expertise and good health.
Studies that dealt with health issues were primarily in agreement that issues such as degraded vision, sudden in-flight incapacitation, and cardiovascular abnormalities are of increasing concern for older pilots . This stands to reason, but it ’s also worth noting that the studies examined for this report found no evidence that the incidence of these problems increases suddenly at any particular age across the population. Moreover, it is well established in the general scientific literature that the health-related impacts of aging can be significantly offset by regular physical activity, a healthy diet, risk factor mitigation (eg, not smoking), and a regular medical check with a GP.
The situation is extraordinarily complicated from a research standpoint, and there’s ultimately no getting around the fact that we are mortal beings. All of us eventually go through a period of decline. The precise nature and steepness of that decline vary tremendously— there are 60 year old pilots whose “true age” is closer to 90 , and vice-versa—but it always comes; and as with many things in life, we are talking about a bell-shaped curve. Only a lucky handful of us will still be flying safely and confidently at 90. In short, age matters, but it’s not all that matters.
The real lesson seems to be that chronological age, for all its convenience as shorthand, is not a terribly good lens through which to examine a particular pilot’s ability to function safely in a given capacity. In many studies, individual differences between pilots of the same age were significantly larger than the differences between age groups themselves. And despite all the studies that, on the surface, seem to speak grimly of the performance of older pilots , we are presented every day with strong evidence that age is only one factor among many, and that “safety” is not a line but a gradient. Aircraft piloted by men and women over the age of 70 are not falling out of the sky with any great regularity. The airline accident rate has not increased since the age 60 rule became the age 65 rule—if anything, it has fallen. There are, no doubt, certain commonalities among older pilots, but in the broad view it seems that individual factors—experience, proficiency, physical fitness, genetics—come together to play a much greater role than chronological age in determining a given pilot’s ability to fly safely on a given day.
The key insight of all the research seems to be that different pilots experience the aging process differently, and compensate for it (or fail to) in a variety of different ways.
Guidance for pilots
For many pilots, changes in visual acuity are among the earliest and most noticeable issues associated with growing older. Peripheral vision narrows, near vision becomes less acute, and eyes no longer focus as quickly. Guidance includes:
- Get an annual eye test.
- Get bifocals, or varifocal lenses. Many pilots do fine with off-the-shelf “readers,” but prescription glasses are generally better.
- Wear haze-cutting prescription sunglasses.
- Use traffic alert EC equipment.
Particularly in the high-frequency range, hearing diminishes with age. Pilots tend to be worse off than the general population in this respect. Guidance primarily aimed at powered sailplane and tug pilots includes:
- If you fly with an engine, consider purchasing an active noise cancelling headset; many pilots are surprised at the reduction in ambient noise.
- Be prepared to ask “say again” if necessary.
- Consider purchasing hearing aids.
Physical strength and stamina
Many pilots report decreased flexibility and loss of strength as they get older. Most notice that cockpit fatigue sets in earlier than it once did. And some find it more difficult to perform fine motor tasks, like pressing small buttons. Guidance includes:
- 30 minutes of physical activity a day, even simple things like walking, can have a tremendous impact on overall well-being.
- Give yourself more time to prepare for flight.
- If cockpit fatigue is a problem, reduce the length of flights (eg shorter tasks).
- Stay well-hydrated, but avoid coffee and other caffeinated drinks. If in-flight discomfort is an issue, carry onboard relief products.
- Stay well-fed. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can take a real toll.
- Proper rest is even more important as an older pilot. Most of us can’t just “power through” as we did in our early 30s.
- An occurrence that would result in a few bruises to a 30 year old pilot could prove far more serious to an aged pilot.
Working memory is used often in flying , and seems to be the type most affected by normal aging. Many older pilots find it more difficult to remember things like radio frequencies and moving map references. Guidance includes:
- Try to fly when fresh
- Use pre-programmed in-flight reminders, eg re nearby airspace, frequencies and aircraft operation, eg ‘check gear’.
- Make use of checklists, including when rigging.
Although experience can have a real impact, aging can also make it more challenging to handle decision-making tasks. Guidance includes:
- Spend more time doing pre-flight and eventualities planning. Any “pre-thinking” you do will make things easier later.
- Fly when well-rested, and make it a point to stay particularly alert to changes.
- Always have a solid “Plan B” ready to go ahead of time. Make sure it’s realistic — something you’re actually prepared to use.
In addition to expertise, currency can have a dramatic effect on overall airmanship, regardless of age. Guidance includes:
- Take an organized approach to refresher training, including things you need to stay practiced with flying alone as well as those that benefit from refreshing with an instructor. Set an annual schedule and stick to it. Look for a good instructor who works well with you and isn’t afraid to throw challenges your way – and keeps it fun!
- Get involved in the latest developments including new information needed by pilots. Subscribe to BGA e-news. Read S&G. You might be surprised about what you’d forgotten…
For most pilots, it makes sense to start adjusting the kinds of flying they do as they grow older. Guidance includes:
- Plan shorter flights overall.
- Re-examine your “comfort zone,” and increase your personal minimums if necessary.
- Consider whether you need to simplify your flying. Instructing and towing can be hard work. A complex glider can be traded in for something simpler, although there can be issues with changing aircraft after years of becoming used to one type. High performance two-seat gliders provide the opportunity of flying with a younger experienced pilot in command (who will probably value your advice!).
Guidance for Clubs
Pilots get it right most of the time – but we are only human. The good news is that the team effort required to get airborne means that most of the time other than when actually flying we’re among friends and colleagues . The best gliding clubs foster a culture where all club pilots ‘watch each others 6 o’clock’ and offer friendly guidance and the occasional intervention to help each other avoid pitfalls. This is in addition to any formal supervision requirements, eg where unqualified pilots are involved.
The ‘looking after each other’ culture extends to being aware of our older pilot colleagues, spotting signs of a decrease in overall performance and responding appropriately. Waiting for an accident to occur is not an option. Although difficult, as soon as reasonably possible the topic should be discussed privately and kindly with the pilot we’ve become concerned about. In doing so, this published guidance can be highlighted. Sensible pilots will take heed and adjust. Some may need time to absorb the information and to accept the need for a change.
Where a pilot is showing a decrease in overall performance resulting in safety concerns and despite friendly guidance the pilot is unwilling to take appropriate action, the information must be passed to the club CFI who should take action by picking up the discussion with the pilot. As a result, the CFI may need to decide with the pilot how that pilot will operate at the club going forward.
Where there are concerns about health including mental health, Aero Medical Examiners are qualified to provide support to pilots.
With grateful thanks to AOPA USA and other sources.