If you’ve been flying over a long, illustrious career, you’ve no doubt thought about when you’re going to hang up the old headset. And maybe you’ve wondered about the consequences of waiting too long. None of us want to end the symphony on a sour note, but we sure would like to keep playing for as long as we can.
It’s all very well to say you’ll stay active at the controls as long as you can pass the medical, often phrased “as long as I can keep fooling them.” But flying these high-performance airplanes isn’t a game, and there are serious considerations to be paid to the people riding with us. Do you really want to keep on plowing through weather and missing ATC calls after your edge has worn dull?
I have to admit, flying these newfangled, positionally-aware, digitally-driven, self-healing machines is a lot easier on the old body than it was back in the day of NDB approaches and vacuum-tube, crank-tuned radios. Now, if I could just remember how to find that start-over page in the FMS…
“Deceit and treachery beat youth and vigor anytime,” says the logo on the seasoned-citizen T-shirt, reminding us that we do have hard-won experience on our side. Having been there, done that, and seen it all does count for something. But only up to a point. As we said at the beginning, someday we’re going to have to decide: When is it time to quit?
Frequently, we’ll get a nudge from our insurer. If you want to keep your coverage, you may have to fly with a copilot; no more single-pilot. Why not make that decision on your own? And don’t just fill the seat with a compliant body, forbidden to touch anything. Single-pilot certification or not, use your right-seater as a full team member.
How do you tell when it’s time to start heading for the exit? As an instructor, and father-confessor, I’ve seen familiar clients age, at varying rates, and I’m paid to point out errors. If you’ve made two or more serious mistakes with an aircraft in the past year, that’s enough to warrant a sit-down talk. When you start staring at a box in the panel, trying to recall how to work the thing, consider simplifying your life. When you have grave doubts about your ability to pass a medical, even though the exam is months away, move aside now.
I’m a great believer in the concept of phased withdrawal. We don’t have to quit cold-turkey. A King Air can become a Baron or a Bonanza, and an all-weather jet can turn into a VFR-only Skyhawk. My bestie sold his Cessna 340 and bought into a two-seater; he enjoys it but may rebound to a 182. The important thing is to keep flying, at a lower, gentler level. If that’s what suits you.
Stay aware of your diminishing capacities, and withdraw on your own terms. Maybe it’s no more night IMC, or no more pre-dawn charter-trip launches. Decide to trade down and bank the savings. Perhaps that second engine no longer enhances safety, but is a looming threat, leading to loss of control if it fails.
Just don’t stick around until you accidentally quit.