Summit presenter offers pilot brain tips

Pilots can fly longer by keeping their brains active

October 15, 2013

By identifying five signs of brain aging, pilots can use tools outlined offered by Janet Lapp, a clinical psychologist and instrument flight instructor, to keep their brains fit and help them continue to fly well past the 65-year-old retirement age.

Lapp started her research 10 years ago with Stanford University’s aging study when the commercial pilot retirement age rose to 65. “That retirement age is foolish. You can trick your brain into not being old. There are things you can do to keep your brain fit to fly.”

There are five skills that degrade with time: insight and awareness, task shifting, vigilance, reaction times, and working memory. “Insight and awareness is about making good decisions and judgments. With task shifting, you can keep things up to speed with certain brain exercises,” she said. “With vigilance, you can help sustain and focus your attention. You can increase your reaction time and processing speeds by practicing complexity exercises."

Pilots don’t need to worry as much about working memory, said Lapp. “It’s the least of your worries, because it’s the first four that can kill you.”

Words that should show denial among pilots, said Lapp, include, "I would never do that"; "It should be OK"; "It flew in, it will fly out"; "I think we have enough fuel"; "Nobody will know"; "My checklist is in my head”; and "This is going to be fun."

Lapp spoke about her granddaughter, Hayley Brown, who was in an aircraft accident in Mexico on June 2, 2012. She noted that the pilot of the aircraft wanted to take Brown and two other passengers for an “interesting” ride. The pilot clipped some power lines and hit a shallow river.

The pilot died, but Brown and other passengers survived. Brown sustained brain damage, but after rehab done by Lapp, she has recovered and is now attending California Polytechnic State University.

Lapp thanked the packed room for coming to her seminar, advising them to listen carefully to the words said by pilots who are about to fly. She asked attendees to be aware of the denial words, practice situational awareness, and start doing written debriefs.

“GA pilots don’t do this, but military and commercial pilots do,” said Lapp. She recommended the websites positscience.com and lumosity.com.

Benét Wilson

Benét J. Wilson | AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor

AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor Benét J. Wilson joined AOPA in 2011. She is working on her private pilot certificate.