Fly Well

Too old to rock and roll?

June 1, 2012


SackierActor Maurice Chevalier said old age is not too bad, considering the alternative—but might increasing years diminish time aloft? Can we mitigate aging’s impact? Or reach skyward when the candles cost more than the cake? These are issues worth exploring, as 25 percent of U.S. pilots holding a valid medical are older than 50.

Each year muscle is lost (nine pounds from age 20 to 70); organs deteriorate; and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work. Most people do the absolute minimum for their health, believing they are immortal—until nature intervenes. The dialogue should not only be about lifespan, but healthspan: time we are fit enough to live, and fly, well. Also remember that “disease” is actually two words: dis and ease, meaning absence of vitality; medical conditions may have been treated, but without the right attitude you will not be fit to fly. Preflight yourself prior to takeoff; taking the yoke with physical infirmity concerns is not wise.

Although aging hampers physical abilities, accumulated wisdom might more than compensate. A 2007 study of 118 pilots published in Neurology by Stanford’s Joy Taylor showed that although responses to ATC commands, traffic, and in-flight emergencies deteriorated with age, overall experience helped to offset individual performance deficits.

Avoiding bodily wear and tear to increase lifespan and healthspan can be achieved by following simple guidelines. No apologies if this makes your eyes do an aileron roll, for although pilots may be healthier than their Earthbound peers—possibly because of regular medicals—keeping well will keep you flying longer.

Diet. Food is our fuel and many put crud into their tanks. Eat sparing, regular, properly balanced meals; reduce sugar and saturated fats; and increase vegetables and fiber. Timing meals is also important; breakfast stimulates colonic emptying, decreasing risk of colon cancer, diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, and other common banes of older pilots. Alcohol tolerance decreases with age, so take care. Avoid tobacco like the plague it is. Good nutrition will lead to longer and healthier lives.

Exercise. Airplanes should not live in the hangar, and neither should you. Before starting an exercise regime, seek your personal physician’s approval; it’s not necessary to transform from couch potato to marathon runner—just move!

Checkups and screening. AME visits may be infrequent, but with aging consider additional family doctor consultations. Media-driven medical advice is aimed at populations, but you are an individual. Solace for missed diagnoses will not be found in statistics. Develop your own screening protocol to avoid age-related conditions that can ground you as a pilot—or put you in the ground.

Sleep is critical. Make your snooze habits healthy.

Be your own doctor. As a physician I attempt my best for patients, family, friends, and myself. I have gradually realized that those who care the most about you are you and your loved ones, so take ownership.

Changing characteristics. Your breathing used to function well at 8,000 feet, but each year lung capacity may decrease, so consider using oxygen. Decreased skeletal muscle might suggest extra care during preflight or when pulling the airplane out of the hangar, or require shorter hops. As we age our eyes become less adept, our hearing diminishes, and mental acuity falters. More frequent checkups make sense—blood pressure is not just a number; if elevated, heart attack or strokes may occur. Ears and eyes should be evaluated annually. Support memory by taking notes of ATC clearances.

AOPA Pilot Protection Services truly has your back, even if it is slightly arthritic and aching. The program will help navigate any medical and legal challenges imposed on flying during a pilot’s senior years while providing tools to avoid problems. The program also can help older students take up what we know to be an awe-inspiring pastime. Aging Gracefully, Flying Safely is a good place to start (

A foolish pilot doesn’t know he is about to make his last takeoff, but a wise pilot knows he has made his last landing. Leverage all the wisdom to keep flying, but know when to call it a day. Consider transitioning slowly, relinquishing IMC, night, or cross-country flight; take up recreational flying or bring along a co-pilot—but keep the ratio of takeoffs to landings close to parity. While aging is inevitable, you can control how you age. British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore said, “At my age I copy Mark Twain. I get my daily paper, look at the obituaries, and if I’m not there I carry on as usual.” And in our case, that would mean go flying.

Email the author at [email protected].

Jonathan Sackier