There’s no stopping Father Time, but next chapter of your flying career can be as a rewarding as your last.
In 1979, Tom Wolfe published his epic recounting of the life and times of military test pilots and Mercury astronauts. Wolfe’s chosen title, “The Right Stuff,” set the tone for his story of personal bravery, unparalleled skills and an overriding desire to “climb the pyramid,” which was military pilot-speak for showing their fellow Air Force and Navy pilots the answer to the question: “Who is the best of the best?”
The book also exposed a version of Murphy’s Law in the phrase uttered at one time or another by many U.S. Navy test pilots: “It can blow at any seam.”
The phrase is a truism that filters down to mere mortal pilots as well. For some, the seam that blows is an accident that is an aviation career-ender compliments of the FAA or, more likely, the not-so-friendly insurance company. Or, maybe the pilot does something stupid that fractures the rules and statutes that govern the profession of flying or the military’s operational orders.
The action can be a life ender, too, for an unfortunate few that cause an event where the aircraft is rolled up in a ball of aluminum with predictable consequences to the occupants.
There is one variant of the phrase however that happens to every pilot, and it can’t be avoided regardless of how careful you are or how good a pilot you happen to be. The seam that will eventually open is old age.
The exact date when the seam will blow is unknown but like an oncoming storm, its approach is noted. As the years roll by, the inevitability of what’s going to happen is first denied outright or put out of your mind. In the next phase, it’s considered, but postponed; it’s something to be reckoned with “sometime.”
That “sometime” will become reality by your sixth or seventh decade depending on company policy, the insurance company, or your health.
Here’s how it works: Along about midway through your fifth decade, it dawns on you that pilots can’t fly forever but still, the day when you have to pull the condition levers to cutoff for the final time is deemed to be far, far away. You continue to ply your vocation or avocation albeit with a nagging feeling in the back of your mind that things aren’t like they were just a few years ago.
You’re mindful of little things like bothersome aches and pains when you roll out of bed in the morning or maybe you find that all those years spent in noisy piston airplanes have taken a toll on your hearing. You try to ignore it but your wife or husband begins to rebel at having to constantly repeat themselves. You find yourself either cranking the com volume control 30 percent farther than you used to or simply mumbling to ATC, “Say again.” It happens more and more often than was the case back when (to quote Billy Joel), “You wore a younger man’s clothes.”
Your visit to the AME becomes an event where the best you can hope for is to break even and get your chit signed for another year. As time parades by, the AME visits become more and more a cause for consternation as you worry that the dreaded epithet “Special Issuance” will be delivered to you by the steely-eyed M.D. that holds your fate in his or her hands.
Your short-term memory becomes a problem and reflexes slow down. Sim recurrent training involves more times when the machine is placed in the pause mode followed by lesson repeats; more than you ever had to deal with “back in the day.” These “redo” events bother you a lot, but you try to put it out of your mind.
If you fly as a vocation, you begin to worry that someone in authority will eventually call your bluff and your career will end before you’re ready. If you use an airplane as a business tool, you begin to wonder how much longer you can continue to simultaneously juggle your business issues and PIC duties – a situation you successfully compartmentalized up until now.
Things begin to happen to you healthwise. Maybe, as my mom used to say, you “get the vapors” or “have a spell.” For example, maybe one morning, you awaken to find the room is spinning. Something like that really gets your attention so your significant other drives you to the hospital emergency room. Several hours go by before the test results come back and you find out you didn’t have a mini-stroke, but rather it’s an inner ear infection. Still, you reluctantly come to the conclusion that given your age, your mission readiness rating is not going to be 100 percent for much longer. And yet, the people that pay you to fly expect you to fly. If you fly for business reasons, you have to chase business using your airplane or the bottom line is going to suffer. Events are closing in on you and your options are dwindling.
Finally comes the day when you realize you have to park the heavy iron (or your prized magic carpet business airplane). Health issues that can’t be ignored or other people’s opinion of your abilities bring down the curtain on your corporate flight department or business flying career. When it happens, if you love to fly, it can be devastating.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make a mid-course correction, meaning you can continue to fly even if you’re no longer producing revenue using your aviation skills. In short, unless you’re in such poor health that you simply aren’t able to fly, you can return to your roots but with the added value that your experience and skills bring.
Treat yourself to either outright ownership of a personal airplane or enter into a partnership with someone you know and trust. Don’t however try to recreate the halcyon days of flying the type of equipment you previously flew. Recognize that although you may be able to afford the initial cost of something like a well-used Navajo or Cessna 340, an airplane like that will eat you alive with maintenance costs.
Instead, something like a single-engine aircraft capable of safe flight in moderate IFR conditions is the ticket. (Trust me, when you are 70-plus years old, you won’t want to fly in icing conditions any more so a decent airplane like a mid-time Piper Lance or Beech Bonanza will do the job nicely.)
Rent if you must but renting gets really, really old quickly. So unless you’re really strapped and cannot afford an airplane of your own, don’t rent.
Once you have your new (to you) means of defying gravity, give to your community some of the joy that aviation brought to you when you were flying for a career or to support a business. Some worthwhile ventures to become involved with include: EAA’s Young Eagles program, the FAA’s FAASTeam safety efforts or one of the many organizations that provide free transportation to people with health problems, travel impediments or special needs.
Consider mentoring (and encouraging) young student pilots. If you have a CFI certificate, instruct part time. You won’t make much money but instrument instruction is an especially gratifying instruction specialty and with your experience you’re extremely qualified. An instrument student will feel as if they have won the lottery when they learn how much you can teach them beyond the basics.
Finally, you can offer to ride along gratis with recently licensed instrument pilots on days when the skies are gray. No need for hard IFR because the opportunity to teach is missing due to the stress; just go fly on the kind of cloudy day when a young pilot with only a few hundred hours will be nervous and unsure of him or herself. You might be old and not as supple as you once were, but you have something the younger crowd is lacking: real-world experience gained over decades of dealing with all sorts of situations and weather.
Keep your hand in play. When the days or professional flying are over, there’s no need to cease to be a pilot who still approaches flying professionally. You’ll find that it’s at least as fulfilling as flying for a living – maybe more so.