Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Armstrong: We’re Not Done Yet

May 27, 2008  By Ken Armstrong

Nothing Replaces Experience

With any luck at all, we aviators will reach age 60 thereby entering the ill-defined stage of old age. Now that I have crossed that one-way bridge, it’s natural to consider the ramifications of my bodily decline and what the future holds.

Initially, it seemed prudent to reduce my risk and cease commercial charter operation approaching 60. In fact, in recent years when folks learned of my pilot ratings, they were often surprised that I was still flying operationally and it got me wondering whether I was too old for front-line flying. Then I got my answer. Last year a friend who happens to own a helicopter company asked me to fill in for a few weeks. If there were any doubts as to whether a 60-year-old could be on top of his/her form they were eliminated after the staff training, pilot proficiency check and weeks of charter flights. The multi-month experience proved there had been no attrition in capabilities. (Some might say I was too old to notice the skill attrition.)

How is it possible that a pilot with a six-decade-old physiology could still fly well? Truth to tell, my vision isn’t close to the 20/15 I was originally blessed with. Typical with the aging process, I don’t sleep as well and I think my data retention skills have evaporated – but I can’t remember for sure…! Suffice it to say that almost nothing is as good as it was when I was in my twenties – with the exception of possessing vastly more experience. Essentially, with an open mind, our abilities to make informed decisions that affect the positive outcome of a flight are enhanced with this experience (i.e., age). The database of acquired skills allows us to avoid danger or conditions that might challenge the safe accomplishment of the flight.

This was abundantly clear to me when comparing the high frequency of  “close calls” during operations in my thirties compared to the virtual absence of scares in my fifties. With aging, the testosterone-driven need to prove oneself in the aviation industry is replaced by a desire to steer clear of death and dismemberment. I’ve lost a lot of my peers along the way and it will give me much pleasure to be among those who collect the elusive CPP and OAP that I have supported for decades.


What aging pilots lack in sharp reflexive reaction times, they more than make up in making better judgment calls – often based on living through similar conditions during past flights. Young pilots may be inclined to put in long hours attempting to overcome fatigue with their youthful endurance. Older pilots typically have the clout to tell the boss “No, I’m too tired!” because they often recall the time they didn’t say “no!” and it almost cost them their lives.    
We can likely all recall seeing friends and acquaintances losing their lives in an accident during our youth and concluding it couldn’t happen to us.  Those of us who outlived the others are all too aware – “there but for the grace of God….” For the aging pilot, the sure knowledge of our approaching demise – one way or the other – drives us to devote considerable time to pre-flight planning, passenger briefing, adequate opportunity to run the checklists without interruption, and to make alternative plans when conditions are deteriorating.

Youths typically have the benefit of healthy cardiovascular systems and general freedom from maladies and pain. This can certainly reduce the stresses facing them in flight. However, most flying is not an athletic endeavour and the relatively better health of the younger generation isn’t a significant factor in flying an aircraft.

I feel many elderly pilots may be giving up their cockpit seat too early.  Airline pilots being forced to retire at age 60 is simply one glaring example – in this case induced by ill-informed bureaucrats. With multi-crew cockpits, forced retirement of these seasoned, expert pilots is an atrocity to aviation and its passengers – and a safety issue.

Leaping into my seventh decade, my next goal is to obtain my glider instructor rating to channel young folks into tomorrow’s cockpits. What are you doing to maintain our aerial freedom and ensure Canada remains at the forefront of world aviation? Giving up flying is not the correct answer.


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