When to set the brakes for the last time.
It was on the 10th day of May – 1884 – that I confessed to age by mounting spectacles for the first time, and in the same hour I renewed my youth, to outward appearance, by mounting a bicycle for the first time. The spectacles stayed on.
– Mark Twain
As John Glenn prepared for STS-95 at the age of 77, a cartoon appeared in the papers. The space shuttle was depicted in orbit with a turn signal blinking, presumably since launch. The condition being a reference to the quintessential indicator of forgetfulness due to aging.
We’ve all seen the turn-signal phenomenon in parents, siblings, friends and perhaps ourselves. At some point, our mental and physical dexterity declines, effective sleep cycles are elusive and the calendar becomes populated with reactive, rather than proactive, doctor appointments. When the forgetful old geezer we’re describing is ourselves, should we bail out the first time we miss a radio call, checklist item or a step-down fix, try to ignore the effects of aging, or modify our behavior and downsize as needed?
The Hubris of the Young
Age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.
– David Mamet
As I struggled through a passionate debate on the AirFacts Journal website about older pilots (www.airfactsjournal.com), the hubris of the young was frustrating, even infuriating. My frustration was compounded because the younger participants reminded me of the arrogance I displayed myself as a long-haired punk learning to fly in the 1970s (See The Van Ride, T&T March 2014). Their position on senior pilots centered on the age-old debate over age and reaction time versus experience. It was the same argument I had with my driver’s ed teacher in high school. Because of my youth, and therefore Bruce Lee-like reaction speed, I tried to convince my instructor that I could out-drive him despite his years of experience; just as the young pilot-participants on the website suggested of themselves versus old pilots. To paraphrase Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld: the youngsters didn’t know what they didn’t know, especially this one.
With low experience, as in youth, many difficulties are unrecognized, so we may react with lightning quick, but boiler-plate and incomplete solutions. The result is the need to apply several additional or alternate solutions, time permitting. As we gain experience (and thus, age), we often recognize difficulties, compare and contrast the situation to previous encounters and apply a solution. Described by neurologists as “crystallized intelligence,” this process is derived from a base of specialized knowledge that supports attention to the relationships between items of information, the anticipation of events, and coordination of physical movements in order to respond faster and more accurately.
The above discussion and high-brow neurology explanation may be a fine comparison and analysis, until, that is, the older contestant becomes slow in remembering, or is unable to remember at all, the aforementioned lessons learned while attempting to engage their magical crystallized-intelligence drive. And don’t even try to rationalize these esoteric facts to a fast-moving, technologically savvy, teenage mutant pilot as they out-remember and out-fly your saggy derrière.
Wrong Patient, Wrong Approach
I’ve been corresponding with a non-aviation writer about the aging doctor debate, no segue to the above sagginess inferred. You know, should an 80-year-old physician be performing surgery. Age presents similar challenges to everyone’s performance; doctors and pilots included. The main concern isn’t that the doctors will fall asleep on their feet, remove the wrong organ or engage the wrong patient. It’s that older doctors, according to my fellow writer, typically aren’t up to speed on the new stuff. Or they’re set in their ways, reluctant to use new techniques and procedures that have been proven to be more successful.
It was curious that forgetfulness was not on the forefront of their debate. Perhaps it’s the very fact of being set in their ways, and proficient in the surgical procedures that they’ve used for many years that memory is less of an issue for a senior surgeon. Once we have found our groove, after having learned what works and what doesn’t, change can feel like an unwarranted gamble. My experiences during the merger of several airlines, changing to a paperless flight deck and the transition to a next generation airliner, have all highlighted my discomfort with change. The process is fatiguing and promotes confusability in those with a saggy derrière.
Our airplanes, avionics, the airspace system in which we operate and a myriad of corporate and governmental regulations are constantly changing every 28 days at a minimum. Pilots must recognize, remember and comply with changes to equipment and procedures. Resistance is futile and a head-in-the-sand approach will bite us in that saggy place every time. Should an 80-year-old pilot fly single-pilot in a high-performance airplane or in difficult conditions such as low IMC amongst all these changes?
Where’d We Park?
We certainly don’t want to be seen at cruise altitude with our turn-signal blinking or caught dawdling up to the plane on a scooter, especially if we’re the PIC. Hanging up the flying spurs is a painful move, but no one wants their age to be a “contributing factor” in an NTSB report. Giving up the crown by voluntarily stashing our pilot’s license next to the Hai Karate (or Evening in Paris) is an eventuality we all will face. I have friends and acquaintances that could no longer afford to fly, those that lost their medicals, and some that encountered an unaffordable or unjustifiable maintenance expense. Some lost their desire to fly due to an insurance claim or unmanageable terms and some were directed by their family to quit. You don’t usually hear a pilot admit poor memory as the reason that they stopped flying, but it would be a hilarious excuse: “I landed somewhere and can’t remember where I parked the damned airplane, so I just stopped looking.”
That excuse wouldn’t work during AirVenture of course; nobody can find their airplane after opening day. If you don’t think people will believe your lost airplane story, or you don’t know what Hai Karate and Evening in Paris are, there’s a couple of alternate plans.
Several solutions are common: continue flying in challenging conditions aboard a complex airplane while another pilot assumes the responsibilities of PIC. You’ll probably need to pay them; transition to a much less sophisticated machine and fly only in day, VMC; fly with a pilot observer or instructor in your day, VMC machine; or you can stop flying altogether, sell the airplane and buy a paddle boat. In order to empathize with the enormity of the decision, especially after considering the blinding speed of a self-propelled paddle boat or the cost to hire a teenage mutant pilot as PIC, imagine the consequences of a serious mental or physical condition developing suddenly while single-pilot in a high-workload situation. Or conversely, picture hanging up the chocks before their time and losing the convenience, camaraderie and joy of flying.
If you are younger than 40, you’re probably full up in the areas discussed in this article and wondering what all the fuss is about. As you reach 50 and beyond,
age-related challenges are likely to develop and you will slowly become enlightened about the fuss. Many of the physical and mental changes will mirror those of being over-tired. And a cantankerous demeanor should not be minimized either as it may be a heads-up of things to come, trust me. But ponder this prospect: in a survey of 1.3 million people across 51 countries, researchers found that people that reported a decline in happiness beginning at 30, but were happy again by 50, just in time for the old-person effects to begin. In any case, diminishing performance is not a pleasant prospect to ponder for us perpetually positive pilots.
When I fly for WOM (Wings of Mercy) and at my airline, it’s a two-pilot operation. It’s easy to recognize the eventuality of forgetfulness in ourselves when operating with another crewmember by the frequency in which they point out things we performed early, late, out of sequence or skipped altogether. When single-pilot, we must make that assessment honestly, and on our own. The deliberation and decision should focus on our ability to perform all tasks throughout the flight. If we’re fortunate, our crystallized intelligence will work as well as engineer Scott’s crystals did for his flying machine. As an over-60 pilot, I don’t think I’m making more errors, but I acknowledge that the day is coming They say I’ve shown a sliver of that cantankerousness. And Mark Twain’s philosophy “if the spectacles don’t fall off when you mount the machine” is probably not a stringent enough test.
If you decide to keep flying, when you reach cruise don’t forget to check the turn signal.
For further discussions and information on this topic, contact or join the United Flying Octogenarians (www.unitedflyingoctogenarians.org).