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Deterioration of Pilot Flight Skills with Age

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Category: Aeromedical Aeromedical
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"Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough."
- Groucho Marx


Description

Notwithstanding Groucho's perspective on aging, age, as it relates to pilots, is an interesting, and often contentious, issue. Pilots are subject to all of the age related problems that afflict the general population. With age, bones tend to shrink in size and density thus weakening them and making them more susceptible to fracture. Muscles generally lose strength and flexibility, and coordination or balance may be affected. The heart rate normally becomes slightly slower and the heart might become bigger.  Blood vessels and arteries become stiffer which means that the heart must work harder to pump blood through them. This can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and other cardiovascular problems. Digestive and urinary problems become more common. Memory may become less efficient with age. It might take longer to learn new things or to remember familiar words or names. Eyesight and hearing acuity often diminish.

Routine medical checks for pilots are legislated to become more frequent after age 60. These help to maintain an acceptable level of safety by confirming that the normal effects of aging have not compromised the required medical standards. However, the routine assessment of flight skills and the affect of aging on those skills is not so closely monitored in a significant portion of the pilot population. Whilst pilots employed in airline operations are, in general, subject to simulator checks every six months, those working in other facets of the industry, such as corporate or private jet, might only require a proficiency check on an annual basis and, under the legislation of some countries, the interval can be extended to two years between check rides. In some jurisdictions, the requirement for a check ride can be dropped completely if appropriate "training in lieu" is conducted. Pilots holding a PPL (Private Pilots Licence) and flying light aircraft are not subject to periodic check flights in most parts of the world.

Pilot Age Limitations

According to ICAO, "A Contracting State, having issued pilot licences, shall not permit the holders thereof to act as pilot of an aircraft engaged in international commercial air transport operations if the licence holders have attained their 60th birthday or, in the case of operations with more than one pilot, their 65th birthday". However, as is often the case with ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS), not all National Aviation Authorities (NAA) interpret or apply the ICAO SARP in the same manor. As examples, some countries do not legislate a maximum age at all whilst others might limit pilot age for flight operations under certain regulations, such as air transport operations, but not limit the age for operations under other rules.

Discussion

Few age-related flight skill performance studies have specifically been undertaken on airline pilots although there have been several studies in which a comparison between "expert" (airline) pilots and "novice" (low time, General Aviation) pilots has been done. A number of age-related studies, some of which are listed under "Further Reading" below, have been done on other segments of the pilot population. Although the studies do indicate the anticipated age-related decline in performance, they also have determined that expert pilots had better flight summary scores at baseline and showed less decline over time.

In general terms, the studies indicate that:

  • The risk of performance degradation increases with increasing age
  • The number pilots whose level of performance will put them ‘at-risk’ will increase with increasing age
  • The skill level of "expert" pilots, in general, does not suffer the same degree of decline as "novice" or low experience pilots
  • In most cases, significant deterioration of professional pilot skills will be detected by a combination of simulator checks, line checks and peer review
  • Simulator checks provide the best test for cognitive performance

For more specific information, please refer to the articles listed under "Further Reading" below.

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Further Reading