Stupid Should Hurt
By Dr. Chuck Crinnian, MD
This was the mantra of my riding instructor when it came to proper technique “flying” over jumps. Do it wrong and you get hurt. The issue with aviation is that stupid is often dead. One doesn’t get a chance to learn from an absent minded stunt. The other axiom is it is better to be lucky than good. I would submit that most pilots have avoided a significant incident based on luck over skills (or lack of). Analyzing the direct and indirect causes of aviation accidents is one of the goals of the NTSB, Air Safety Foundation, and many other aviation groups. Reading the summary of aircraft accidents from the NTSB does not give light into the chain of events of the incident or accident. Statements of “pilot selected the empty fuel tank” or “failed to tune proper ILS frequency” do not give a lot of insight into what the accident happened. This is as useful as an autopsy report in medicine stating the patient died “due to not breathing”. We all are getting older. If you look around the airport, you see that we are aging pilots. There are not a lot of new young pilots taking our place. Does age play a role in the accident chain? Do we get stupid as we age?
The central question about age and relationship to aviation accidents is not new. The age 60 rule for airline pilots was established in 1959. This arose when a 59 year old pilot crashed a new turbojet. As the average life expectance was less than 70 at the time, the FAA made an arbitrary decision to make an age 60 cutoff. This was not based on research.
A 1983 study suggested that older Class I and II pilots had higher accident rates at all levels of flight experience. Class III pilots had a decline in the accident rate until age 60, and then increased after age 60. A study in 1990 could not answer the question one way or the other, so it remained the same. Around 1997, the European JAA studied the issue and could not determine that age had any relationship to aircraft accidents.
There is a concern about sudden incapacitation in older pilots. The data does not prove this out. Using data from the last 40 years, a pilot incapacitation accident would occur every 8,307,082,800 flight hours. There is no aircraft component that will last this long!
There are several current studies on age and pilot performance. There is only weak evidence that age related cognitive differences influence pilot performance. There is age related motor skill degradation. Additionally, pilots and the general population experience memory decline after age 70. But, studies also point out that the age related declines in pilots are offset by experience. Non-pilots experience some age related loss of attention. However, many studies show that pilots do not have the same loss of attention to flight tasks. Thus, the array of psychological studies are a mixed bag, and do not consistently suggest any conclusions that can be made about aging pilots.
There is evidence that flight experience and recent flight time is protective in cognitive skills. This flight expertise can reduce the age related declines in many cognitive skill sets, with the exception of “multi-tasking”.
So to go back to the original thought, is aging a consideration for a link in the accident chain? Perhaps, but a weak link at best. Clearly if one cannot balance a check book, or go shopping with a shopping list, then hang it up. But, with the proper use of checklists, avoid multi-tasking, keeping flight currency and skills honed, then flying safely into older age is safe and appropriate