Proficient Pilot: Time marches on

May 1, 2008

Columnist Barry Schiff retired from TWA in 1998 at the then-FAA-mandated age of 60 years old.

The earliest recollection I have of wanting to be older is when I was 14. This is when I had to wait two years to make my first solo flight at the minimum age of 16. Patience was not one of my virtues, and time passed much too slowly for my liking. These were a difficult two years. They seemed like an eternity. I literally kept track of the hours remaining and subtracted 24 from the total every morning.

When I turned 16 and soloed, I could not wait to be 17 so that I would be old enough to become a private pilot and take my friends flying. And then, of course, I had to count the days until I would be 18, old enough to become a commercial pilot and flight instructor.

I seem to have spent much of my youth wishing for the passage of time, wishing away my life, not realizing how great it was to be young. I always seemed to have a reason to be older than I was.

I eventually discovered that one really must be careful about wishing for something—especially being older—because it comes true quickly enough.

Fast forward to 1998. This is when the FAA said that I had become too old to continue flying airliners for a living. This was harsh notice that I had significantly overshot my previous goals of wanting to be older. How, I wondered, do I alert the Aging Gods that I was content, that I no longer had a reason to be older?

After taxiing up to the jetway at the end of my retirement flight, a gate agent rolled a wheelchair into the cockpit and motioned that it was for me. It was tempting to leave the left seat of the Boeing, sit in the chair, and allow myself to be wheeled into the terminal. Where, I wondered, had those 34 years with TWA gone? Sixty was too young to be legislated out of the cockpit. I still felt great and fully capable of commanding a jetliner to anywhere in the world. But the FAA shook its dogmatic head. I had become an ancient pelican, too old for as much as one more flight.

Thankfully, the powers that be have come to their senses and extended the FAA-mandated age limit from 60 to 65.

It is now 10 years later. Last month I checked out in some rental airplanes at Channel Islands Aviation, a first-class flight school at my new home airport, Camarillo in Southern California. Part of the formality involved acknowledging with signature that I would abide by the school’s policies. Paragraph 3 of that document, “Senior Renter Pilot Policy,” states that pilots 70 to 74 years of age must take an annual checkride with one of the school’s instructors. No big deal, I thought. Check flights are a good idea. But the next sentence was startling. It stated that pilots who have reached the age of 75 may not rent an airplane without an instructor in the right seat. In five years, the document says, I will not be allowed to rent a plain-vanilla Cessna 172 from this school and fly it in VFR conditions. My life seems to be going full circle.

I mentioned this policy to some of my friends. One of them told me that he was not surprised. During a recent visit to Ireland, he was denied an automobile rental from Hertz simply because he had passed his seventy-fifth birthday. This policy, he understands, is gradually spreading to other countries. Hopefully such restrictions will not work their way into the United States. It would be crippling not be able to rent a car just as it would be absolutely devastating to be denied a rental airplane solely on the basis of age.

I did learn later, however, that the flight school in question makes exceptions to its age-75 rule. I certainly hope so.

Age limitations can be grossly unfair. I know pilots who are less than 50 who should be banished from the cockpit. On the other hand, I know some in their eighties who are incredibly sharp and proficient.

Experience makes us safer, although in some cases it can lead to complacency. Typically, though, it affirms the importance of the need to be more careful with necessities such as flight planning, weather analysis, checklists, and run-ups. It teaches us never to be in a hurry and that no flight is so important that it cannot be postponed or cancelled when conditions are not conducive to safe operations. Experience has encouraged me to adopt a plethora of safe operating practices, not the least of which is to recognize and abide by my personal limitations and those of the airplanes I fly. It helps me to extend my longevity so that my passengers and I may fly another day.

Wishing to be older when I was young did not, of course, accelerate the passage of time. If anything, it made the time seem to pass like molasses. But as one gets older, the inexorable march of time seems to accelerate unabatedly.

My prayers to the Aging Gods are different these days. I pray that I will recognize and accept if and when the time comes for me to hang up my flying spurs. Then, I suppose, I will return to building model airplanes, and my life truly will have gone full circle.