by Dr. Bill Blank
Aviation Medical Examiner
The average age of pilots has been increasing. This is due to several factors. Because of improvements in lifestyles and health care, people are living longer. Airline pilots are now permitted to fly until they reach 65. Fewer young people are becoming pilots. This increases the percentage of older pilots. When changes occur in regards to the Third Class Medical, more older pilots will take advantage of this.
We frequently read about automobile accidents involving senior citizens. This has been studied extensively. Some research suggests that there is a marked increase in accidents and a corresponding decrease in performance after the age of 75. So far there hasn’t been such a marked increase among older pilots.
Statistical and simulator studies have been done on older groups of pilots. They seem to show that older pilots benefit from their years of experience, which tends to offset the effects of aging. The group, which appears to be at the highest risk, is older low-time pilots.
What are some of effects of aging which we may have to cope with as we age?
Vision deteriorates with age. Even though some of us may still meet the visual standards for a First Class Medical, it is highly unlikely that we see as well as we did when we were 20. The standard for a First Class Medical is 20/20. Most young people can see much better, namely the bottom line on the chart, 20/10. It would be very rare for one of my older airmen to be able to do that.
Night vision deteriorates. How about hearing? We all know older people with hearing problems. The solution for that is fairly simple. Frequently, turning up the volume on the headphones will suffice.
Reaction time decreases with age. The older pilot compensates by better being able to anticipate the need to react and can start to react sooner.
We lose strength, too. Some airplanes have very heavy controls, so we may need to use both hands when previously one was enough. This may become a problem if a rapid full deflection of the controls is needed.
Short-term memory deteriorates with age. We use short-term memory a lot when flying, especially when receiving clearances. More insidious are changes in cognition. This can decrease our ability to handle emergencies. Advanced cases of Alzheimer’s disease are obvious. What about early changes? When do they start to affect flying safety?
We all would like to be able to fly as long as we safely can. What can we do to continue to fly safely as long as possible?
A healthy lifestyle is important. This includes diet, weight control, moderate exercise, and keeping our mind active. No smoking. Up-to-date glasses and hearing aids should help.
Obviously making all right turns as is recommended for older drivers is not practical, but there are many things we can do.
Consider making shorter flights. We can change our personal minimums, such as having lower crosswind limits, and increasing our IFR minimums. Avoiding busy airspace, flying less at night and earlier at night could help. Only flying IFR with a co-pilot and writing down clearances along with flying less complex aircraft might be good ideas.
For those of you who would like to explore this more in depth, I recommend AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation’s online course “Aging Gracefully, Flying Safely.” It is comprehensive, excellent, and free! You can even get credit for it for your flight review. I have used some of the ideas in it for this article.
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Happy, safe and healthy flying!