That Elderly Pilots Article - The Feedback

The article in the autumn issue, repeated in the October Flight Safety Extra, occasioned a good deal of feedback and clearly this is an issue on the minds of many. This short article sets out the responses of some of our readers.

The former Tugmaster from one of our more northerly gliding clubs phoned me to say that he was broadly in agreement with the article and recommended FLARM as a valuable reinforcement of good lookout for glider pilots. However, contrary to the argument in the article he considered that there was not much in common between elderly pilot and elderly driver issues.

This view is echoed by a power instructor from a Scottish club who observes that driving calls for continual and concentrated devotion to handling and lookout while flying is not so demanding in a continuous sense. On the other hand a particular risk in flying is having to carry out a difficult manoeuvre without recent practice. Putting a light aircraft down safely in a demanding crosswind is a typical case in point. If it is some months since you last attempted this you may be making too great a demand on your handling skills, which will have rusted that more rapidly if you are elderly. So you should either make a determined effort to keep in practice at crosswind landings or you should avoid them by not flying or diverting as necessary.

Jim Thorpe of Rate One Aviation at Gloucestershire Airport – they describe themselves as Europe’s leading PPL Instrument Training Specialist – writes in to say that they are now training their third candidate over 70 years of age for the Instrument Rating. The two previous obtained their ratings taking around 60 hours of training, which he does not consider to be extreme. The major areas of difficulty for elderly candidates are memorising checks and RT competence: he comments in passing that the average standard of RT across the whole pilot community is truly awful. He also considers as regards checks that we get them to do too many and then the really essential checks tend to get thrown out with the barely useful stuff, judging by the IR revalidations.

He also queries whether serious thought has been given to upgraded avionics. For example, is writing stuff down really needed now that you have bugs and alerters?

Barry Tempest
, who has been captivating crowds at airshows for many years, wrote to say the article needs to be read by all the GA fraternity. He confirms the need for others to speak out is a vital one. 'How often have I heard after a fatal airshow or GA accident that it had been waiting to happen. Why did the folk who thought  this not do something about it?'

As regards his own flying he reports: I ceased my airshow flying in 2013 voluntarily at the age of 75 … He adds: I have been a pilot now for 63 years [with] over 13,200 hours … and flew over 2,300 public airshow performances. Prior to a minor heart attack in 1999 as a result of learning how much my daughter’s wedding was going to cost me I held a UK ATPL, a US CPL(SMEL) and a Russian PPL. I have a Silver ‘C’ gliding badge and two legs of my Gold ‘C’.

Terry Cook 'Age 65' he adds – (Oh to be 65 again muses your editor) thinks as follows:

Without being too grumpy about it, for me the issue of age is not about aids to operate  but of competence to do so, and that applies at any and every age. Indeed a quick assessment of the various AAIB reports towards the back of the magazine would support that view, with the deaths of the 2 × RAF trainee pilots being a very sad example.

That competence for me falls into three sub-areas – currency, content and challenge – and here’s why.

1. Currency

The point of currency has been made but it still amazes me that not only the CAA but also the GASCO bodies can accept such a small requirement to remain current. [GASCo is not a regulator. It does, however, recommend the ‘Farley List’ at Safety Evenings. Ed.]

From my unscientific and statistically ‘not-so-robust’ assessment, there is a correlation between currency and safety; far too many accidents seem to involve pilots with just a few hours in the last 28 days. Indeed, it amazes me that for the NPPL(M) to be renewed requires only 12 hrs flying in 2 years, and 6 in 12 months.

How on earth can anyone stay on top of a demanding and risky pastime when flying so little, especially if done only in glorious weather?

2. Content

Even when the currency is valid, there is no requirement for the flying to have been any more challenging than a ‘pootle’ around the local area on a gin-clear, flat calm day. There is no requirement to carry out anything more demanding than a take-off and landing – no stall practice or PFLs, or anything that might provide a useful capability when the aviation gremlin bites you on the bum.

3.  Challenge

Now that we are flying more to maintain our currency and we are practising exercises that will help when things go wrong, what next? Well, how about extending our capabilities with more challenging flying? After all, a mental challenge is one of the recommendations to us oldies to keep dementia at bay.

It is true that I have to fly with an Instructor to have my licence re-validated. But again, other than specifying that the flying must be ‘training’, the CAA requires nothing more. I can choose what I want to do, I don’t have to prove any competence, and I don’t have to pass. Quite frankly, I doubt the value of the hour other than to the flying school’s finances.

So if none of the routine requirements to keep legally flying seems to require much by way of challenge how many pilots seek it out for themselves? Not enough pilots, I suspect, progress carefully to challenge themselves to master take-offs and landings at max crosswinds, or to fly when the weather is legal but poor, or to achieving an FAI Colibri award?

The Way Ahead?

The article starts by suggesting – rightly – that there will be a time when all of us are no longer capable of being P1. But the tone of the article – and especially the ‘steps that you might take towards flying safely into old age’ – suggest it is aimed at all older pilots irrespective of competence.

The article rightly suggests that if we, as a community of professional amateurs, are serious about maintaining our ability to fly
then there are some improvements we might make. But these won’t apply just to we ‘elderly pilots’, but to pilots of any and every age.

From the experience of my advancing years, then, perhaps the following suggested changes might be improvements that will benefit every pilot? 

Perhaps our re-validation might be annual over the age, say, of 75?

Re-validation/re-assessment may even be required if identified as a result of an Airprox or AAIB investigation. Perhaps a little like a road speed awareness course?

Routine re-validation flying should require more hours and include some basic capability assessments – stall, PFL, etc.

The revalidation might also include a few theory questions – after all, if memory suffers with age perhaps we ought to demonstrate we haven’t lost it.

Training might be brought up-to-date, and include use of GPS, and flight in or near at least an ATZ. 

Removing (or at least minimising) doubts about our competence, and especially ‘doubts about an elderly pilot’s competence', will benefit us all. We may then feel we can continue to fly solo without the need for a carer, or ‘another pilot’ as the article
euphemistically calls it!

In the end, age is NOT the issue but competence is, and the two are NOT directly related. To misquote the old RAF adage, the issue isn’t about the years you’ve put in but what you’ve put into the years?! 

Peter Bishop considers that the article about elderly pilots although well intentioned casts a little slur against them. This is because young and inexperienced Pilots also make mistakes and suffer fatal accidents. Should they be told to hand in their flying kit as well – or is a cull of senior Pilots envisioned?

Of course like car driving, those who are no good at driving cars or aircraft will have accidents. With the consequences of flying accidents being so severe, it could be said there is a natural filter at work. However, the check flights and medicals I thought were there to weed out unsafe pilots of any age? We are all responsible to report any unsafe pilot, but what happens if the CFI and Flying Club ignore the report?

I have read reports of perfectly fit youngish airline Pilots dying at the controls (I suppose that is the reason we have 2 Pilots on commercial aircraft when possible). But if a Currie Wot goes missing over the channel – well the Pilot knew the risk … who cares?

My observation is that fatal accidents are not the realm of the elderly alone. The fact is that the young and Experts (including Instructors) are at risk, and also crash – not just the elderly.

This is an emotive and complex subject. It would be interesting for someone to scientifically research this question, before “shooting down” in some cases highly experienced and capable Pilots. There are Pilots in the USA still flying at the age of 100 years and, although this is an exception, surely if someone is risking his/ own life whether sailing or flying it is their own neck and decision ? Is there a problem at all ? Surely we all have the freedom to practice and pursue any hobby at any age, providing we keep within the law ?

The fact is that we all die sooner or later – hopefully after a long and fulfilling life with as much flying as possible; that should be the aim – rather than culling elderly Pilots. 

Your editor concludes that this is, as he suspected, a sensitive subject and the fact that so many have responded to the article suggests that it is close to the thoughts of many GA pilots.