At what age are you considered an “undependable” pilot?
The natural process of aging is of more interest to you as a pilot than for most other groups because of the exacting demands on individual abilities and capacities. It is natural and expected that some physical components and sensory functions will deteriorate somewhat as you grow older. The degree of deterioration varies greatly from person to person, therefore, a general rule of thumb might be based on skill and judgment levels as phys;cal and mental changes take place through the years.
The first of these changes which becomes evident is the decreased ability to handle certain bodily stresses, especially the increased difficulty in fighting fatigue. The stresses of extensive military flying usually establish the taper-off age for combat flying to be about 45. On the other hand, airline pilots are often considered at their peak about this time because of the experience and skill gained over the years.
As you grow older your body has a tendency to “slow down” in reaction time, efficiency, and recovery from climatic extremes. A young individual can react more quickly and strongly to urgent situations than can his older counterpart. Manual dexterity involving muscle coordination is affected by age, but not to any predictable degree. Although quickness of response increases through childhood and youth, it gradually decreases with maturity. Older persons who do retain quickness of response continue to compete well with much younger individuals. It may be true, however, that a slower reaction time might be critical in landing procedures where a large number of actions must be carried out rapidly.
Aging also has some specific effects on the circulatory system, eyes, and ears, and the results of these effects are of great importance to the pilot. The circulatory system is fairly well monitored as a result of renewing the Airman Medical Certificate. Changes or trends toward deterioration are detectable, and performance decline or risk may be discussed with your AME.
As you approach 45, the lens of the eye may no longer be able to focus properly on near objects because of the gradual loss of its elasticity. Thus, you may find that reading instruments, charts, or radio controls may be a bit more difficult. In partial compensation for this, the eye becomes more far-sighted making it easier for the older pilot to scan the sky in search of other aircraft. Bifocal lenses, while helpful, are not always satisfactory because you have to tilt your head back to see overhead objects. If you think your vision isn’t what it used to be, ask your AME to arrange an eye test. Correctable vision is no deterrent to certification.
With increasing age, the ability of your eye to adjust to darkness also declines. Especially after age 60, the pupils tend to become smaller (letting in less light) and the membrane at the back of the eyeball loses some of its sensitivity to light. Within its capacities, the older eye adapts to the dark as quickly as the younger one but, it does not attain as high a level of sensitivity. So, a pilot of 45 might require around two and one-half times more illumination at night than a 25-year-old. A pilot of 60 might need 10 times the amount of light as the 25-year-old. Landings under minimal light conditions could profitably use the eyes of a younger pilot.
Hearing, a less critical factor to safe flight than vision, also becomes less acute with age. The impairment is most marked in the higher frequency ranges, above 2,000 Hertz. Normally, the ear remains sensitive to the range of voice frequencies and to the frequencies used for Navigational Aids identification.
A pilot is as “old” as his vision, his muscular coordination, and his skill as well as his mental adaptability to flight conditions and problems. The pilot’s individual ability to perform his duties can be the determining factor when weighing flying activity and age.
All-in-all, everything considered, 60 seems to be about the logical cutoff age for professionals since most mental and physical abilities hold up well into the late fifties. Dark adaptation of the eye decreases quite rapidly after reaching age 60.
In view of the progressive problems of age, the older pilot should gracefully acknowledge the ravages of time; check himself out on cockpit procedures often and faithfully; learn new material and techniques; and consult his AME if the least bit in doubt about his capabilities. But, when physical deterioration outstrips piloting skills – it’s time to quit!