A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

December 2006

Too Old to Fly?

One day, a snail was making it’s way down a beach.   A turtle was coming the other way. They collided. The snail was injured, and when the doctor asked it how this collision had occurred, the snail replied, “I don’t know. It all happened so fast”.

Speed is a matter of perception, just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.   A 30 year old aerobatic pilot is comfortable in a 150 m.p.h. dive 200 feet AGL.   A 60 year old recreational pilot, I dare say, isn’t.

As we get older, our bodies start to slow down. And whether we like it or not, admit or fight it, so do our minds, thought processes and reflexes. Not many young fellows have the patience to sit in traffic behind an old geezer who’s wearing a hat. The hat is the giveaway to the age of the geezer. I know, because I was once that young fellow. Now, well let’s just say I’m beyond those years.

Where I live, seniors need to renew their drivers license annually once they reach 85. Probably too old for some. Airline pilots are obliged by federal law to retire at 65, even younger in the U.S. and France, where it’s 60. Air Canada has a company policy that states mandatory retirement for it’s pilots at 60.   There are various court cases underway challenging these regulations, and perhaps some will have already been changed by the time you read this.

The whole question of mandatory retirement is complicated, with good arguments on both sides. Those in favour include pilots who either recognize the signs of slowing down in themselves, or may be sitting on a fat, secure pension. The Allied Pilots Association represents 13,000 pilots with American Airlines. It supports the mandatory rule of 60, citing the fact that not one single airline accident in the 46 year history of the FAA’s rule has been attributed to the sudden or subtle effects of aging. The associations president, himself an airline captain, opposes experimenting with a higher retirement age, stating that at some point we would find out what age is too old. Who would want to be on that particular flight?

Many pilots are opposed, basing their reasoning on their own good health and judgement. Arguments cite age discrimination, and the fact that no hard evidence exists showing pilot proficiency decreases after age 60, all else being equal. Perhaps individual testing of pilots should be considered as an assessment, rather than the use of the blanket age rule. And another fact enters into the picture. Older pilots are safer, smarter, better airplane managers. They’ve been around longer and have vast experience to rely on.

In an article like this, we couldn’t begin to cover all arguments on all sides. But I’ll give you my thoughts. From experience, older pilots are indeed safer and smarter than younger fellows. But, and here’s the catch, only to a certain age. That age is not necessarily 60, even 65. The effects of aging are insidious, never actually slapping us in the face. We gradually become slower in our responses, our though processes and reactions. The smart ones will recognize the sloppy crosswind landings, the close calls, the increased fatigue levels, difficulty understanding controllers, etc., and will hang up the headset.  But others will push themselves, either not realizing or not accepting   what should be obvious signs they’re beginning to have trouble. This is unfortunate. Private pilots are allowed to fly well past 65, based on their individual results of the medical exams. We all know there are ways to fudge some of the information to get through that. You can fool some of the people some of the time. But when it comes to flying, it doesn’t make sense to try and fool yourself.

If there’s a big pension issue as with many airlines, some pilots need that extra 5 years to build up some security for their retirement. Through no fault of their own, these people have seen their futures dissolved along with the pension plans.  But it seems to me that to a private pilot, there’s no shame in deciding when it’s time to throw in the towel and quit flying. Giving up the license only means more time for other things in life. Like golf, skiing, buying a sports car or motorcycle, a boat or bicycle, a kayak or vacation home. What about spending more time with your spouse? Just being together. Life doesn’t end with the end of a flying career. Always have a Plan “B”.

The important thing is to be honest with yourself. Fooling some or all of the people shouldn’t be the point of the game. In the end, it’s ourselves we answer to. It’s the face in the mirror we must look at. The question should be can we look that face in the eye and honestly say we made the right decision.   Continuing to fly with the knowledge we’re unfit is not a good decision. It would border on criminal if we carry passengers.

There really is no magic age. Pilots who are ready to give it up can still get on with life. Form your Plan “B”. It could uncover some excitement you’ve been missing all those flying years.

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