When pilots have too much experience

As pilots we spend our flying careers amassing hours of experience. Our skill and competence, and qualification for new ratings, and certainly for flying jobs, is largely based on our hours of logged experience. That makes sense. We humans become better in almost every endeavor with practice.

But when does a pilot have too much experience? In other words, when do the number of years logged since birth matter more than the number of hours in the logbook?

This question has assumed new importance to me because I just turned 70. A guy I fly with regularly in a corporate King Air 350i is 75. Together we have more than 102 years of flying experience. Is that too much? If not now, when will it be?

The FAA and its rules are silent on maximum pilot age except for pilots who fly for scheduled airlines. That maximum age is 65, up five years from the age 60 maximum that held for decades. There are rumors – perhaps circulated by old pilots like me – that the FAA is considering another maximum airline pilot age increase to 70, but I know of nothing even resembling the beginnings of new rule making.

For the rest of us, whether we fly for business under FAR 91, for hire under FAR 135 on demand, or for personal reasons, the FAA offers not even a suggestion of a maximum age. The requirements to obtain the appropriate medical certificate remain the same no matter our age, so that’s no guidance. And the medical standards for even professional pilots are not overly sensitive to the normal ravages of age that eventually affect all of us.

The reality is that insurance underwriters have been the enforcers of what I would call more realistic pilot standards. It’s the insurance companies that set requirements for total time, or time in type, for example, to qualify for specific coverage. And the underwriters are the ones, not the FAA, who send most pilots back for recurrent training that the FARs don’t demand.

But, so far, aviation underwriters haven’t taken a solid, much less a consistent, position on the question of how old is too old for a pilot. Word around the airport is that after age 70 it may become more expensive to buy insurance for pilots flying for personal reasons, or that high limits on liability may be unavailable beyond that age. But those are just rumors, impossible to confirm.

airline pilots
Airline pilots have no choice but to retire at 65; should general aviation pilots have an age limit too?

Several years ago the head of an insurer that covers many personal airplanes told me a story. His company had insured an 80-year-old pilot who owned and flew a cabin-class piston twin. That pilot crashed, killing himself and his three elderly passengers.

As you can imagine, the accident kicked up a lot of dust that Gramps had finished off himself and three of his equally elderly lady friends. The parent company of the aviation insurer went crazy demanding to know why a pilot of that age had been underwritten. The answer was that the aviation underwriters had no data that showed older pilots posed any additional risk. All of the company’s data showed an 80-year old had an accident at the same rate as younger pilots with equal pilot experience and training.

The aviation insurer battled its parent who demanded that it stop insuring older pilots. Finally, a truce was reached with the aviation arm agreeing to charge a significant premium increase to pilots older than 70, even though it had no supporting risk data that warranted the higher premium.

The bottom line is that data ranking the risk of pilots by age doesn’t exist. When the FAA was considering increasing the airline pilot maximum age from 60 to 65 before the rule changed in 2007, there were a number of safety studies conducted. The studies concluded there was nothing to support a difference in safety between a 60- and 65-year old pilot. The studies examined the accident records of pilots older than 60 who flew sophisticated non-airline airplanes. They also subjected 65-year old pilots to simulator tests, and cognitive and reaction tests. The results were the same. No difference between a 60 and 65-year old pilot could be confirmed.

But the studies didn’t extend to pilots older than 65 because that was the maximum age being considered. So pilots like me, who are 70 and older, have absolutely no data to consider when trying to decide how old is too old. And neither do their passengers, employers or underwriters.

A pilot I know who is well past 70 has decided to up his simulator-based recurrent training from once a year to every eight months in the hope that will uncover any age-related loss of flying skill. Makes sense, I think.

But then I consider my late parents and the rules they drove under in Illinois, where they lived. Illinois has the most stringent requirements in the nation for older drivers, including taking a full driving test at every license renewal after age 75. Once an Illinois driver hits 81, they must take the driving test every two years, and then every year at age 87. In other words, Illinois was administering what we would call a checkride to elderly drivers to attempt to measure their performance behind the wheel.

My parents both made it to 93, in good health until near the end. And both had driver’s licenses, having passed the required road test every year before the end. But to ride in a car with them those last 10 years or so of their life was terrifying. The last time I agreed to do that with my dad he made a left turn in front of an oncoming car so close that I could see the other driver hadn’t shaved that morning.

So if older drivers in Illinois can get past a driving test that is intended to stress teenagers, can a checkride in an airplane detect pilot skills lost to age? Probably not.

How old is too old is the question that becomes more crucial to pilots every day because too few younger people are coming in the bottom to replace us oldsters. The average age of active pilots increases every day. And the pilot shortage – finally for real this time – means that we older pilots remain in demand because, well, there aren’t enough younger pilots with the necessary credentials to replace us.

I ask myself often if I have lost a step to age. But I don’t know the answer. At some age I, and all of us, will, but can we know when? I still touch down on the centerline in the appropriate zone from the threshold. I fly IFR all of the time so my performance is constantly monitored and recorded. And I have even mastered – I think – a new suite of integrated avionics. Adapting to new technology and operating systems is reportedly harder for old folks, so maybe that counts for something.

It’s a truism that we all age at different rates, and that we need luck to avoid disease that can rob us of capabilities. And so far I’ve had that luck. Maybe my question will be answered when I just get tired of flying and have had enough. That hasn’t happened yet, but showing up at the airport at 6 for another 7 o’clock takeoff in the coming winter darkness may do the deed before an AME tells me it’s time to hang it up.

48 Comments

  • I didn’t start flying until I was 60, licensed at 63, private pilot since, and now 70. I do not have a long list of experience or ratings, but decided this year to take the batteries out of my headset. I have no problem passing a 3rd class medical, no issue with a checkride and no discernible difference in mental acuity “I” can detect. I’m just not 60 anymore and I have read the statistics. I hope this was a wise decision… but it is not what I wanted to do. Insurance companies have stolen more from me, in my lifetime, than anyone else. I still fly occasionally with a flight instructor as I think two old “farts” are better than one 60 year old in a 172/182 Cessna. Altitude has always improved my attitude.

  • I had a WWII pilot friend (who has since passed on) was able to fly until 91. I asked him shortly after his 90th birthday, when he would stop flying. He stated when he could no longer climb up on a C172 to check his own fuel. That event happened during the following year. He was a light wind, day VFR pilot for many of his last years because he knew he was not as sharp as he was earlier. He was a smart old pilot.

  • I am 74 years old, a current flight instructor with over 55 years of flying -military – corporate – GA, and I’ve received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. This past week I flew with an 84-year old that had 1,400+ hours. He flew a better pattern (airspeed/altitude/attitude) than any of my students of any age. Far better than the airline pilots that come out for Flight Reviews. It is ridiculous to use age as the primary criterion for when to start or stop flying. Lots of the young pilots I work with are just an accident waiting to happen. Hopefully, they will get a lot of coaching (like I did in the past) from the older pilots before they get into command positions. But with the rush to get pilots ATPs, I don’t see it happening. Let’s focus on Knowledge – Training – Proficiency – Equipment – and Culture. Culture may be the most crucial factor to measure. I see fewer “old” guys and girls” taking risk than younger hot-shots teaching young hot-shots “rote flying skills.” If we plan to use Data to make these types of decisions, let’s not wait three years for it to be released. Final thought. Google “How many people die because of errors in hospitals every year in the US?” That should make you proud of our safety record in aviation, even with us old guys still flying.

  • Great article Mac. I retired last year after 31 years at a major airline. I was 62.5 years young. I also enjoyed a 26 year military flying career (mostly part time ANG) and retired from that in 2006. I have been blessed with good health and many of my friends questioned my retirement decision. I feel like I could fly an airplane as well as I ever could when I retired. The problem I noticed was that I couldn’t work as hard as I did in my 30’s or 40’s. Airlines expect everyone to fly 85-90 hours per month, with no consideration given for your age. I found myself using most of my days off just recovering from the previous trip. Sleep became somewhat elusive. When I was a 35 year old fighter pilot I could sleep on the hood of a car, not so when I entered my 60’s. My vision wasn’t as good as when I was younger. I needed fancy glasses to fly that dark stormy night approach to minimums. However, I could still fly. I had decades of experience and my physical abilities were good enough. I loved mentoring young airline professionals. I decided to retire when I was near the top of my game, not when my coworkers were hoping that I would just leave.

    I still fly GA for fun and I especially enjoy formation flying. But, I choose to fly on nice weather days. I avoid flying at night and in IMC. If I’m tired or don’t feel great, I just don’t go. That is my version of risk management. Your mileage may vary.

    • Hi Greg,
      I think your observation is spot on. The job of flying is different from, well, just flying. And all the odd schedules and disrupted sleep and rest cycles that come with the job of flying are simply harder to deal with as we age.
      Mac Mc

  • GA pilot, retired tactical NFO. Given the office workforce I’m around, some of these folks won’t make it out of their 30’s without cardiovascular challenges, diabetes and other disqualifying conditions. Age shouldn’t be the first discriminator. A brand new airplane can be a dog in 5 years, suggest pilot mind/bodies aren’t any different…a well maintained “vintage” pilot may be a lot healthier than the shiny new kid with no health history, overweight and with no intent to ever work out.

    …and on total time in this era of automation, maybe it’s time to start logging hand flying time…or give NFOs PIC time!

  • Good read, Mac. Where I do agree that age is not an accurate gage of competency, I do take issue to pilots flying into their 70’s. If they’re flying for themselves, good for them and the spirit of aviation. If they’re flying as a means of income then you should probably hang it up. There are many young pilots that are working to establish themselves, support a family, and work up to a retirement that hopefully anyone on their 70’s has. Pick up a set of golf clubs and enjoy the golden years.

    • Why hang up commercial aviation at age 70? I would say that most of us realize when it’s time to hang it up. My barometer is my Stearman, the day that I cannot control it until the chocks are in place and or the hangar door is closed, is the day i hang it up.

      • I would have to disagree that most commercial airline pilots would know when it is time to retire, mainly because the pay has gotten so good lately, thanks to the shortage of pilots and the resultant leverage at the bargaining table, that it would take a truly selfless individual (on the order of Richard Collins perhaps) to give up such a lucrative career unless there was clear evidence of incapacity. Such evidence would most likely show up either in the simulator or in the AME’s office, and the decision would actually be made for the pilot.

        On the other hand, a performance based criteria, such as you point out with your Stearman, is a good measure until the docs can come up with a way to spot very early onset Parkinsons or Alzheimers accurately enough to be meaningful.

        You could always downgrade from the Stearman to a Cherokee – no climbing up on the strut!

    • Russ, since you said you agree that competency is irrespective of age, then your suggestion that older commercial pilots hang it up just so that it opens more jobs to younger pilots is as ludicrous as it is selfish. I had to pay dues back in the day that you can’t imagine now in a time of pilot shortage. I suffered every unfairness in compensation for years, waited for opportunities to open up when/if the older pilots retire (the openings that did become available were rare compared to now) — and that was with the carrot held over my head that someday I’d become a senior pilot and arrive at the “big bucks” that “would” come. Well, the top tier of pilot pay got cut along the way when the airlines conspired to cheat the union, and the long-promised “opportunities” in the airlines have only just recently become available to any real extent. So I had to pursue other careers to have enough income upon which to live, as opposed to the reality of “crash houses” the singular income of airline pilots would allow. So, if now, at my “advanced” age I pursue corporate flying – and with a lifetime of experience that beats a younger pilot – then you can just wait your turn and pay your dues as the rest of us did. To suggest otherwise is your sense of entitlement, and your suggestion that someone like me should quit and “take up golf” is snarky and insulting. I don’t play golf, but you’re welcome to take a lesson from me at my karate studio – if you can keep up.

  • Mac, another great article. My birthday is this coming week and I will turn 79 years. I am celebrating my birthday, as I usually do, that is, flying. My bride and I are flying our C182 to Atlanta and I am then doing the Porsche Driving Experience on my birthday. Still drive my 911 to airport on a regular basis to go flying or take a commercial flight if the weather is too nasty for me to fly my C182. I still have an active consulting practice and I travel many weeks out of the year on business. Flying is a motivating factor for me to maintain my health by regular exercise and good eating habits. Being able to fly my own plane for business purposes is so helpful and I file IFR for all my trips. When I turned 70 years, the insurance carrier made me renew my 3rd class medical every year. Once Basic Med came on board the insurance carrier has not made that a condition for my policy renewal. I continue to do the 3rd class medical every 2-years and thus far have not changed to Basic Med, but may consider it this next year. I believe that most of us pilots will know when it is time to stop flying hopefully that will not be anytime soon for me. I am having too much fun growing old.

  • We are all as young as we feel, everybody is different and no one in this whole wide world has the right to tell anyone when you are to old to do anything. We all age at different ages, some of us age younger than others, and some age later in life, bottom line. I compare myself to some of my close friends that are ten years younger than me, and they look much older than me and conduct themselves like they are older, a shame for sure. You are as young as you feel and as healthy as you want to be. I bought and drove my first auto at age 13 some of my friends didn’t even learn to drive till they were out of high school !!! What do the alleged experts have to say about that ??? thank you.

  • Soloed this month in 1949, shortly after my 16th birthday (if you can’t figure out my age, quit flying) a decade before the CAA was replaced by the dreaded FAA. Spent 33 years with Trans-World Airlines (the first 4 years on the Lockheed Constellation being my favorite) and have logged some 34,000 hours, an average of less than 500 per year. Lost way too many friends who were trying to deal with regulations & procedures instead of just using common sense. Don’t know when I’ll quit but do know I’d never fly when required to use a radio unless I was well paid for that distraction. Happy Landings!
    don draper, ATP#1212754

  • Mac,

    Another timely and well written piece. I’m very close to your age and we’re thinking similar thoughts.

    Greg J,

    Plenty of us are experiencing exactly what you described. You’ve got a great attitude and I wish you many pleasurable formation flights in the coming years.

  • “Adapting to new technology and operating systems is reportedly harder for old folks…” No, that really isn’t the case. It’s just that we older folks know that “old technology” is better – learned, proven, perfected. Need proof? Just watch a cashier give change.

  • Always suspected the aviation insurance companies had no data to back up their decisions, just hunches. I’m 72 and with the same company for 42 years. All of a sudden can’t use a contract pilot older than me who has more experience. Asked how young the contract pilot must be and only silence.

  • I liked your article a lot. My two cents, Been flying since the late 60’s and today I’m current and qualified in 737(all series),757,767,777 and md80’s, train 767 pilots for an asian airlines and 737 guys for a south american airlines, flew a 707 not long ago and I’m not ready to retire.. yet! I pass my medicals and pc checks just like I did 40 years ago. Let’s see what happens in the next 10 years,btw, turned 73 few days ago

  • When are you too old to fly?

    When the process stops intriguing you. And that “process” is the “triple-A” of Airman, Aircraft, and Airspace.

    Are you as Airman fit to fly? And I’m talking about things beyond just passing the medical. Does that arthritis you have make it more of a drudgery to climb in and out of that Cessna?

    Is scrutinizing airframe, engine and propeller logs an adventure — or a chore? Do you even do it at all?

    Do you review NOTAMs prior to every flight? Can you still interpret “that jewel of all things aeronautical”, the Sectional Chart? Can you still do a pencil-and-paper weight and balance? Shucks, can you even fly without Foreflight?

    “Old” depends on a lot of things. Mostly, are you “bald eagles” still excited to do it. Put another way, given whatever financial or physical state you’re in, does “fence hanging” still turn you on, like that 8-year old kid over there?

  • Excellent discussion. Like any other go/no-go decision, whether to fly above a certain age, or whether to fly under specific conditions (IFR, night, tailwheel, etc.) is highly dependent on individual circumstances. But that decision must still be made BEFORE a problem exists.

    A large aviation organization to which I belong reports it is becoming common for pilots above 80 years of age to receive insurance renewals valid only when those pilots fly with a younger qualified pilot who serves as Pilot-in-Command of the flight. At least for now the trend is for an insurance cutoff of PIC authority at age 80.

  • Great column Mac. I recently reached a decision point. With my 80th on the horizon, should I pursue a PhD. or finally after numerous attempts at a far younger age get my LSA or GA license. I found the PHD took longer, cost double and sounded dreadfully boring. So having been around aviation as an AF loggie for most of my life, much to my wife’s displeasure it’s off to flight school. Yes, I turn 80 next week, but I’m going to get ‘er done. AFJ is one of the tools I use for knowledge. I’m proof that 80 is the new 60.

    • Mr. Stephenson, first of all, congratulations. I have long stated that aviators are the absolute best this nation has to offer.

      As for you, my advice is to surround yourself with people you love, and people that see your aviation dream come to fruition. Shucks … that advice is not much different than you pursuing that Ph.D., now is it?

  • I am 75 years old and have spent the last 50 years and 22, 800 hours flying FAR 91 corporate and FAR 135 airplanes. I have my own single pilot FAR 135 certificate as well as holding the Chief Pilot position of an FAR 135 company operating daily unscheduled international flights to the Bahamas in twin engine planes. I have never had and accident nor have I had any FAA violations throughout my career. I receive an FAA Class 2 medical exam every year without any problems. I also fly eight different cabin class twins and turboprops on a regular basis for owners who are not pilots themselves. Lately, one of the insurers of a turboprop I fly has stated that they want an additional premium because of my age. I may be approaching the threshold of starting another career.

  • I am now 88, belong to the UFO group, stopped flying, had in the last few years always flown UFR, stopped when reached 82, didn’t notice any problems just felt that I might be in a difficult approach could lose attention and kill myself and my copilot wife, didn’t want that to happen and didn’t want to find out that I had made a bad error.

  • If politicians and lawyers and doctors and college professors and business executives all had to retire at age 65, the stupid FAR 121 age restriction would be eliminated.

    • Hi Allan,
      One fact few of we pilots consider is that controllers are forced to retire at 57. Is their job that much more demanding and critical than ours as pilots?
      Hmmm. . .
      Mac Mc

  • The article is relevant to me since I am a couple of months short of 94 and still fly solo regularly and instruct, only advanced students. I have been flying since 1943. I know I am not as sharp as I was 50 years ago but I try to be realistic in evaluating my performance on every flight. I use my ATP multi-engine standards as one of my measures and ponder every day whether this is the day I give up.

  • I am looking at 90 in 4 months. I have the Master Pilot certificate. The only airplane I have flown in the last 52 years is my Twin Comanche. 5000 + hours time in type.
    Liability insurance quote tripled this year.
    Hearing rapid talking center when things are busy is difficult.
    Flying has been a great asset to my business career and life, but I have reluctantly accepted that I should no longer be pilot in command.
    Al Powers. N88AP

  • I am 84 and have been flying professionally since 1956. As an FAA Air Carrier Inspector I stay current in a regional jet…3 takeoffs & landings every 90 days, full-fledged check ride every 9 months, simulated line check. Match up with the kids pretty well, I think. No longer have a medical, but none is required. A Wright Brothers Master Pilot awardee (2007). Still do it because I love it…keeps the brain cells moving, and keeps me out of the house!

  • The solution to the pilot shortage is to do away with any age limitation such as Canada and Australia does, No they do not have a pilot shortage there. The only restriction should be that a younger 1st officer such as under 40-50 fly with a Capt over 65 .As long as the PIC can pass a 1st class medical.
    The industry needs senior pilots over 65 to mentor the new hires. They have the skill experience and maturity and most of all they love the job. Groups like ALPHA and AOPA should lobby congress and the FAA to change the FARs to solve the shortage.

  • I totally agree with Mac, as far as controllers needing to retire from being a controller at age 57, It appears that that job is very stressful and a mistake in judgment could be catastrophically very bad for all concerned. But the job of a controller is also at the top of list as far as being looked at with a critical eye ball !!! Especially the upper type and attorneys, in this day of law suites etc. But bottom line, it appears that being a controller is very stressful ( not to take away from airline pilots for sure) Pilots make mistakes daily and no one notices, if a controller does this daily he will be out of a job pronto….Just calling the shots on the ground for a controller is very difficult and can be catastrophic if only one wrong move is done incorrectly. Although 57 does sound kind of early, but who am I to judge, I just work hear. just my opinion..thanks.

  • At 74 my daily 7+ km hike has me going up and down several slopes, sometimes in deep snow. Keeps the ticker and brain working. The AME looks at me funny when I tell him my only med is eye drops.

    Driving and flying I keep an eye on my error rate, but catching the error in time is what really counts + these days the O2 comes on at 5,000.

  • Good article.

    Passing a check ride is just one hurdle. Others include the ability to be alert and ahead of the airplane (in the air AND on the ground) when the check pilot (CFI or whatever) isn’t around. I’m a fair weather pilot now. I don’t do night flights in my SEL, nor do I fly IFR in that aircraft. An interesting factoid is that even person with mid stage Alzheimer’s can pass a driving test. How do I know? A few years a go I invited two very accomplished psychiatrists to present a WINGS seminar to local pilots on cognitive decline and dementia. Both! told me over dinner the night before the seminar that within the previous month they had a patient in their office who was cognitively impaired to the point of mid stage. Spooky! I don’t think any many of us can be good judges of our ability to perform. Climbing into a Stearman or any other airplane merely tests motor skills and strength. As we age I strongly believe our peers, family, AME (or family Doc), the CFI who does our BFR or insurance mandated check ride must play an ever increasing role in the decision to a) ground ourselves; or (b) only fly when a competent CFI or other pilot (not just a buddy!!) is in the right seat. I’ve read several places that 1 in 3 men and 1 in 2 women will be symptomatic for cognitive impairing diseases by the time the 80s roll around.

    • … edit… The patients of those two doctors “proudly displayed” (their words) a freshly issued drivers license. According to those doctors, an intelligent, high performing person can bluff their way through a test or check ride if it lack rigor and complexity.

  • WOW!
    I’m 85 and trying to solo the R-44 Raven I. I soloed the Raven II at Riverside in 2009. But my wife’s cancers and resultant hospitalizations kept me on the ground.
    Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba kept me busy in F-86, F-100, and F-102. I’m thinking that I may be pushing a dream after reading these excellent comments from maturing pilots.

  • Great article. I’m particularly intrigued by your comments on Illinois driving license requirements. I held a Class 2 commercial driver’s license (5 ton non-articulated trucks) in Ohio for years until they changed the law and eliminated the category.

    I’m of the opinion that everyone should have to pass a basic driving test every time they renew. That would eliminate 40% of the idiots on the road. Starting with “Basic Sedan”, I also think you should also get type rated and tested for monster pick-up trucks, SUV’s, and high performance sports cars. There are too many people on the road driving too much car (truck) and they can’t handle it in a parking lot, much less on the road.

    If you want to pull a trailer, you should get an additional endorsement. There should be a special sub-endorsement for boat trailers. Look up “boat ramp fail” on YouTube if you need a laugh.

  • I think the Doctors weed out the high risk pilots. That is their job. The Doctors know better than the insurance people. Any fights we have with insurance companies, should be done as a team with our Doctors.

  • Mr. Mac;

    Stop now. I doubt seriously that you’ve lost any motor function of a statistically or practically representative level, but you are AFRAID you have. Yes you are. Your writing clearly shows it. You’ve been brainwashed by the age bigoted society in which we live. No one of any age ought be flying if they’re afraid they might not be able to meet the demands. So stop now. Seriously. Most – not all – humans experience changes that spur the behaviours that have brought about the mania in our society against age. Not all display those behaviours as a result. It’s the mind that controls all in humans. Sadly if you are afraid that you’re fail, you’ve taken the first step towards failure. As we know the margins in aviation are so much smaller than in the rest of life, so you’re a potential victim. You are to be applauded for being self aware. The lack of self awareness and the resultant displayed behaviours is what puts this situation in the public eye. The FAA’s policy is reasonable given the segment of the public being regulated. Sadly, it appears the State of Illinois also has a reasonable policy given that regulated population. Pilots are different. Drivers and pilots are apples and oranges. I encourage anyone entertaining the question “am I too old?” to stop flying now – since you are – mentally. And the mind is the single most important piece of safety gear you’ll ever have. And I’m in my 60’s – so I do have some frame of reference – but still …

  • I caught the bug very late in life: I passed my check ride at 64; just passed my flight review (I will be 70+ when it expires). My reflexes were honed by years of playing baseball, ping pong and other activities and when I feel that I can no longer respond quickly to an emergency I will hang up my headset. The main age-related physical difference I feel is that the arthritis is worse, and I don’t have the strength I used to have. It’s no longer that easy to climb up and check the fuel on a 172.
    I am a VFR SEL pilot and the weather has to be ‘primo’, I have to have had enough sleep and have flown in the last three weeks or else I take a CFI. If I leave the pattern I top off the fuel. I am always looking for a place to land. There is an excellent video online in which a CFI continuously pulls the throttle to idle and tells the student to execute engine out procedures and go-arounds. As we age we GA pilots must keep up our skills. Frequent continued updates and reviews are mandated by airlines but a VFR GA pilot only has to fly once every 90 days (daytime) to take passengers. I had a minor incident last year and find that I am more careful than ever with an airplane.
    My Dad flew GA until he was 94; the last 15+ years with a CFI. He would have the CFI take off and land the plane, and Dad would fly at altitude. He knew his distance judgment was not what it used to be. He thought an annual medical check up was a good idea. He said ‘if I die in the air, it doesn’t matter, but if I kill someone on the ground then there is a problem. A thorough physical will reveal if there’s a heart or other problem.’
    My advice, if there is any from a low time VFR-only pilot is your physical and mental health is Number 1. Your body is the only one you get. Treat it well.
    Keep training. Go up with a CFI once in awhile. Work on the hard stuff. My CFI said ‘let’s go under the hood’ for part of my BFR. I hadn’t done that since my check ride.

  • I’m 65, have my professional pilot credentials, my own airplane, and I’ve had it with so-called “experts” and “writers” creating havoc for everybody else. McClellan, weren’t you the editor of Flying Magazine when Collins went on his rants about multi-engine airplanes? Result: My multi-engine insurance premiums went up, yet both of you later opined in other writings that for operations over the city, or at night, or in the mountains, or over water that multi-engine aircraft are the aircraft of choice. So, in those operations, that would make flying multi-engine aircraft safer – r-i-g-h-t? Well, look around. There are cities most everywhere there aren’t mountains or over water. And it gets dark regularly. Now comes your assault on pilot age. Thanks a lot; now I suppose I can expect the insurance companies to read this, again, and follow with higher or non-existent coverage for me — again.

    Age has nothing to do with it. We are not all the same, physically or intellectually – a point which ought to be self-evident. For example: McClellan, decades ago (in Flying Magazine) you wrote that nobody could actually manage to fly IFR at the tail end of the allowed six month currency window. Well, flying on the West Coast with long spans of VMC, I’ve regularly found myself at the end of currency – grabbing the opportunity when presented by flying all six of the approaches, most of them including the missed approach procedure and the holding procedures – one right after another between adjacent airports, stopping only once for fuel. (Oh, and that’s hand flying the airplane 100% of the time unequipped with autopilot, and sometimes night IMC.) Yes, at my “old” age, regularly doing what you said can’t be done when you were half my age. I also run on high-altitude trails at 65; something I doubt you could do when you were half my age, either. Medical assessments of my mental acuity are that I’ll remain “superior” to others half my age for decades (so if I did eventually slip then I’d be expected to be even with the young pilots). This didn’t happen by itself; I’ve put in the efforts to take care of myself, just as anyone can choose to do. But most don’t. As a result, experienced and safer older pilots may be forced out by blind and dumb statistics, fear over thin statistics, speculation, and foolish stereotypes.

  • I just started taking flight lessons about five months ago at age 64. Weather limitations have made it such that I only get about two or three sessions a month. Raising a family and starting later than many precluded my having time to train prior to this. I have no doubt that I learn slower than I would have 30 years ago but this has been one of those things that I’ve wanted to do since I was a small boy. At times I question the wisdom of it since it is very exciting yet very stressful at the same time, however if you want to grow old quickly just tell yourself you are too old and watch it happen. I just feel like I’ve got some miles left that I don’t want to just use in an easy chair.

  • Well said, Mac; thanks. Not every old airman has the judgment to know when to quit. While serving on a panel evaluating the function of the Federal Air Surgeon’s office, I saw sobering examples: e.g., an 85 yr old, highly experienced pilot who had severe heart and blood vessel disease, flunked the first minute of a stress test, had suffered strokes, and had problems with vision and neurologic function. He was a serious hazard on the road, much less in the air. But he thought he deserved to keep his medical certificate BECAUSE he had lots of hours. Sometimes the love of aviation and healthy self-confidence mutate into hubris, which the gods punish. I quit flying in my 70s after asking myself: if I had a friend with my medical conditions and medications, would I let him/her fly my grandsons around? I suggest that as a good tactic for any elderly pilot.

  • I am 74 years old, and I am beginning to think it is definitely time to hang up the spurs. I am an AME, and I see an occasional 80+ year old pilot, and except for 2 in this age group, I haven’t seen any that I think really grasp what it takes to be a competent pilot today. Some of the 70+ year olds say that they, “just want to fly.” Really? Some of them haven’t flown for 30 or more years. One even wrote on his 8500-8 application for a Class 3 medical that he felt better now than he did when he was 20! Evidence of poor memory, I would say. I am convinced some of the applicants I see that are 70+ get to solo or have a refresher and never see an instructor or AME again, but they buy an airplane and fly around from uncontrolled airports oblivious to the various levels of airspace control. They pay cash for the airplane and don’t insure it, so, other than family, no one knows what they are doing, and, in some cases, the family doesn’t know. They come see me to get an FAA medical so they can get started with an instructor or have a refresher course. They are often on several medications for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol, prostate disease, hypothyroidism, and other illnesses. The 2 80+ year-olds that I mentioned above were still active and on a medication to keep cholesterol low, but no other medications. They had good hearing and their cognition was as good as any 40-year old.
    For myself, I soloed in 1973 and have ASMEL ratings plus CFI and CFII certificates as well as being a Senior AME.
    Several months ago, I had a 70+ year old come in for a renewal of his medical certificate. I had seen him in the past and had no problem giving him a medical certificate then, but, since then, he has been in 3 times and fails to understand that he is on 7 medications for various problems, and he must provide letters from his treating physicians, lab data, etc., that relate to his various illnesses. The last 2 times I have seen him, he has not even completed the 8500-8 medical application before coming in. So, in summary, it is a rare pilot over about age 75 who still has a grasp of what flying is all about. Professional pilots who have worked in the “system” for many years are likely to still be competent, but the non-professional who has no idea about modern airspace changes, communication requirements, etc., as well as what to do in an emergency is really at risk for problems for themselves and others. A few months ago, I was a witness to an airplane landing on which the nose landing gear failed to extend. A bit over a year before, the pilot failed to extend the landing gear and bellied it in. There was no insurance on the airplane, no current annual inspection, no flight review for the pilot, and no current medical certificate for the 80+ year old pilot. I thought the pilot had evidence of Parkinson’s disease just from glancing at him.
    I once saw a 70+ year old who wanted a Class 1 medical certificate. He had Special Issuance from the FAA for some medical problem that required him to provide the results of certain tests to the AME every year at the time of his FAA medical examination. He thought the Special Issuance letter said he was “good to go,” and didn’t require him to jump through the FAA hoops to keep his medical certificate.
    I have a policy that every new applicant who calls me for an appointment for an FAA medical examination must provide me with his/her age and a list of medications being taken before I will see them. If they have a diagnosis that requires special issuance or are on medication that is not approved by the FAA, I tell them what hoops they should jump through before making an appointment.
    Just my two cents worth as an AME
    Larry W. James, MD

  • I want to offer a comment about Basic Med.
    I occasionally talk to pilots who say they are going to do Basic Med, because, “I don’t think I can pass an FAA medical examination.” Really? Where’s the logic in that. For the record, the Basic Med exam includes everything on a Class 1 or 2 FAA medical other than distant vision for which the minimum is 20/40 for Basic Med and 20/20 for the FAA exams. In short, if the private physician offering a letter to a pilot stating that he/she is competent to pilot and airplane to 18,000 feet, VFR or IFR up to 250 knots IAS, with 5 other people on board and is not actually doing the real Basic Med examination, that physician is opening himself/herself up for major lawsuits.
    A few months ago I did a Class 3 FAA medical on an MD (specialist in internal medicine) who was doing Basic Med in his office. I did my usual examination and he stated that it was the most thorough physical examination he had ever had. Really? I pointed out that he was supposed to do everything I had done on him plus a couple of other items on the Basic Med list that aren’t required on a Class 3 examination. So, anyone who gets a Basic Med exam, if it is done properly, and not “pencil whipped,” it is actually a more thorough examination than a Class 3 Medical examination.

    • And yet, each year, some pilots with brand-new Class 1 medicals in their wallets manage to drop dead at the controls.

      What evidence exists, to support an assertion that the FAA’s medical empire does anything to prevent deaths in or caused by piloted aircraft?

  • Guess as an aged pilot who has reached 90 I will enter my 2 cents. About 6 years ago I sold my plane and chose to fly only with another rated pilot in the right seat. This was a measure that I HATED to take but common sense told me it was the safe way to continue flying. My reflexes are still good and no trouble passing a medical. Like to think that my brain still works at a high level. Fortunately also have two good pilot friends who have time to enjoy a cross country now and then. Grateful for all my blessings including a wife who still navigates for us. Do have to do a bit of saving to afford the expense of a rental but still logged over a hundred hours so far this year. Keep em flying!

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