by Bob Worthington
Copyright 2021. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/July 2021
It is a fact of life. Sooner or later every pilot has to quit flying for one reason or another. Some do it voluntarily, while others are forced to abandon the cockpit. But before that time comes, consider some options that may be available to continue flying.
Some of my friends quit flying because it became too expensive. Military pilot friends of mine provided numerous reasons why they quit. One said that flying general aviation aircraft just could not compare to flying jet fighters, so when he retired, he stopped flying. Another friend quit flying when he retired saying he felt flying was too dangerous and he no longer had to fly. He had two combat tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. Another friend who flew fighters in the service retired as a colonel at age 48, and quit flying thinking he was too old.
Most pilots I know who quit voluntarily report that the stress of obtaining weather, flying IFR or in congested areas, maintaining proficiency, staying current, and remaining technically competent became more of a chore than the fun it used to be.
Then there are those like me, who lose their freedom to fly. In my case, it was my heart. Two combat tours in Vietnam exposed me to tons of Agent Orange, which has a propensity to damage soft tissue in the body in a variety of nasty ways. I was diagnosed (at age 78) with Ischemic Heart Disease, requiring my aortic heart valve to be replaced. The Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) prohibit a pilot with a replaced heart valve from flying. If the pilot desires, after several months pass, he/she can undergo extensive (usually expensive and not covered by insurance) cardiac evaluations, and if passed, request a Special Issuance (SI) Medical Certificate (FAR 67.401). When six months had passed and I was almost 79, medical specialists who had experience helping pilots obtain their SI to fly again, deemed me too old to get it, regardless how I fared undergoing heart tests. Still, other options for flying were available, which I will describe later.
Flying is an endeavor requiring several intellectual, psychological, and physical tasks be accomplished individually and in tandem. Strength is required to remove a plane from its hangar – the bigger the plane, the greater the strength needed. Mentally pilots must absorb, analyze, quantify, and act upon considerable information, often simultaneously. Good pilots must deal with the stresses of harsh weather, aircraft malfunctions, time schedules, passenger issues, and personal difficulties. Any of these issues may create psychological concerns that interfere with safe flying.
Sadly, as we age, our strength, our abilities and skills tend to diminish. For some people, this lessening may be slow over time, while with others it is insidious, rapid, and interfers with safe flying. Wise pilots recognize and accept these changes as we age. Others will ignore signs of fading capabilities, and continue to fly, regardless of the dangers involved.
As we discover it takes more energy or agility or mental acuity to accomplish aviating responsibilities (which were readily achieved 20 to 30 years ago), we become frustrated, worried, and stressed. All reasons for failure in the left seat.
The Difference Between Yesterday & Today
Yesterday, you could curl 35 pounds effortlessly, whip through a crossword puzzle in minutes, answer the phone, take notes, and use your computer, all at the same time. Yesterday in severe IFR weather, you could easily, on final, acknowledge a request to abort your present approach and switch to a different instrument approach to land. Your acute mental process accepted and understood, immediately, what had to be done and how to do it. Missed approach procedures were applied, radio frequencies changed, approach plates switched, GPS reconfigured, quickly and without undue concern.
Today, though, 10 pounds to curl is hard, crossword puzzles require additional time to think about correct responses, and multi-tasking is almost impossible. Today, you must take time to focus on what is required to achieve, and if rushed, this can become incredibly stressful. Confrontations arise when there are too many tasks to complete at the same time. In the cockpit, this is a recipe for disaster.
As we age and our abilities begin to fade, we need to recognize this is causing more stress on flights and we must do things differently (or with less challenges) to reduce stress. And doing this is not that challenging, if you want to continue flying, safely.
One way to work around the aging process is to change airplanes. In my late 60s, I had a Mooney 231. It was fast, but not easy to get in and out of with legs that have been busted up, way too often. I wanted as much speed as possible and an airplane that was much easier to get in and out of and roomier inside. The 231 gave way to a retractable Cessna 182. But then, another problem arose. Full tanks weighed almost 600 pounds, all over my head. The track at the bottom of the hangar door had a lip high enough, so I could not push the airplane into the hangar with full fuel. A gasoline tug solved that problem.
For those who fly retractables, an old saw goes, “there are those who have and those who will,” meaning if you fly a retractable gear airplane, sooner or later you will have a gear-up landing. By my early 70s, I wanted less complexity, so I bought a fixed gear C182.
An uncomplicated way to reduce stress when flying is to alter flight plans. Into my 60s, I could fly my 231 straight from my home in New Mexico to my parents’ home in Connecticut, over 2,000 miles, in one day (and the reverse). Depending on winds, this was a 12 to 15-hour trip.
As I grew older, I eliminated night flying, then cut back each day’s flying to two easy legs, terminating no later than mid-afternoon. I did less “hard” IFR flying, willingly waiting for better weather. I would spend time flying locally, practicing the usage of all my instruments for instrument flights. Even if I only had one long cross-country in a month, I was still remarkably familiar with all the gadgets in my plane.
Since most of my flying was cross-country, I then began to plan my trips for the easiest flights, and not the quickest. Instead of seeking the cheapest gas enroute (which usually meant smaller, uncontrolled airports), I preferred larger airports with control towers to assist me in landing and fuel service. Additionally, I would select airports with an ILS approach to make it easier to set up the best flight path for landing (let the autopilot lock onto and fly to touch-down), and I would go around mountains, rather than over or through them.
Some people thrive on sticky notes. For me it is scraps of paper, typically found on my desk or the dining room table, sometimes taped to my computer. These are notes to remind me of phone calls to make, bills needing to be paid, appointments not to be missed, even grocery lists. Most people have a method of placing reminder notes around the house or office so important things will not be forgotten. The cockpit is just as important (perhaps more so). Checklists, specific for your airplane, become your convenient sticky notes for the left seat. Some pilots use what is in their pilot’s operating handbook (POH), others make their own. I preferred the plastic covered checklists made by CheckMate. It lays, readily accessible, in the console between the front seats. While I believe my brain is good, I know I can’t remember everything, so a checklist ensures what I do in the plane is correct and that I do it. Where is your checklist?
Why one flies has a lot to do with cutting back. For me, the plane was primarily for cross-country trips. When the failed heart valve was replaced, my flying (as I did) was suddenly halted. I explored what options remained. Going the SI route was not seen as favorable to me. Because I had never been denied an FAA medical exam, I could fly a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) using my driver’s license, but with the aircraft’s weight limitations, it would not serve as a cross-country plane for me and my wife.
For me, the safe and sensible answer was to ground myself, which I did. Doing that proved to be the right decision as when I got into my mid-80s, I experienced several ambulance trips (heart episodes) to the ER, something not possible in the air. I still remain close to aviation by interacting with pilots, reading aviation magazines, using on-line aviation resources, and my favorite, sharing 40 years of flying experiences with you, our readers.
Everything I mentioned here can go a long way to reduce or eliminate stressful flights. Another suggestion…AARP provides an online defensive driving course (also in person), which is not a skill-driving session, but rather an in-class tutorial to make one a smarter driver. It exposes older drivers to threats and dangers, often never realized. Taking this course makes people very much aware of how aging negates what we may once have been able to do.
It is true that older, more experienced pilots, retain the knowledge and experience to either avoid danger or apply the appropriate action when challenged in flight. But those older pilots who have a keen understanding of how aging can affect performance, tend to be safer pilots and know when it is time to change how they fly if they continue to fly at all.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer (www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com).
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor, mechanic, attorney and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures or following any advice discussed herein.