Older Student Pilots

OLDER STUDENT PILOTS - NEVER TOO OLD

Table of Contents

Importance to Members

Overview

Technical Information

Additional Resources

From the AOPA Archives

Table of Contents

Importance to Members

Probably the biggest reason people begin to think they're too old to learn to fly has nothing to do with age and everything to do with energy level. If there's one thing true about age, it is that it becomes harder to muster the energy required to hammer away at a new problem. Or old problems, for that matter. Gray has barely begun to streak your hair when you find that you're beginning to lose patience with cold weather, inane conversation, and a million of life's little annoyances. As the world grinds away at you, the constant challenges cause some people to get mentally tired. Life doesn't get easier just because you get older and, in fact, just the opposite can be true. This can cause a person to avoid unnecessary new challenges, such as learning to fly, which definitely isn't good.

Doing new things like learning to fly is one of the guaranteed ways to keep the energy levels up regardless of a person's age. The "if you don't use it, you lose it" thought pattern is true, and the more people avoid stepping into unknown deep waters, the more they will find themselves staying closer and closer to the shallows. Eventually the time will come when they won't even dip their toes in. The day you look at a new challenge and a little voice in the back of your mind says, "I just don't have the energy to do this" is the day you actually start getting old. We all know people who are well into their eighties who have projects and wanna-do lists that make it look as if they expect to live to be 150 years old. Those are the same people we picture as being much younger than they actually are.

Overview

"Yeah, I've thought about learning to fly, but...well, you know...you can't teach old dogs new tricks."

Exactly when did flying get tagged as a young person's game?

First of all, even in the dog world, it's never too late to teach Old Butch something new. Oh, sure, he learned easier as a puppy, but it's definitely never too late. In the world of the ground-bound homo sapien not only is this true, but at no time is it truer than when learning to fly. The saying should be, "You can teach old dogs new tricks, but it takes a little longer - and when they learn it, they learn it better."

Assuming there are no debilitating physical problems that make it impossible to get a medical certificate, old usually is a state of mind having little to do with reality or the person's chronological age. Look around and you'll see people who are old at 40 and others who are young at 80. Part of that is physical, but most of it is psychological. We've all heard it said that those who think young, live as if they were young. Conversely, if you want to make yourself into the oldest person on the block at 35, you can easily think yourself into that position.

Technical Information

Age

Unless you're an airline pilot, the FAA doesn't care about age, and airplanes don't either (airline pilots are required by law to retire at age 65, but there are no age restrictions on other types of flying). You can be a real duffer (we'll use 85 years old as the entry level to dufferdom) and the FAA medical examiner and the FAA won't bat an eye. Both medical certification and actual flight instruction are demonstrated-ability situations: If you can pass the tests, you're in. If you can't, you're out, and that applies across the board regardless of age.

 In terms of flight training, there are no known definitive studies on how age affects the ability to learn. There's a general opinion based on long-term observed trends that it takes longer for someone who is 50 years old to learn than someone who is 20 years old. A longtime instructor gave us an interesting thought derived from many years of experience: Assuming a student has no prior flight experience, the number of flights it will take to solo him or her in a glider is roughly equal to the age; e.g., it will take a 15-year-old 15 flights, while a 30-year-old will take 30 flights. This is hardly scientific, but assuming there aren't other health or mental issues, other than it taking longer, most instructors don't see a major difference between older and younger students.

One minor difference observed is that older students are generally more conservative. This is undoubtedly the direct result of the natural process in which aging teaches you to respect your mortality.

Eyesight

"Me, a pilot, with these Coke-bottle glasses? No way!"

Yes, it can happen. The FAA relaxed its stringent 20/20 requirements some years ago. Today, the standard for a third-class medical requires vision correctable to at least 20/40 in each eye. 

In almost all situations where your uncorrected vision is substandard the authorized medical examiner will write a restriction onto your medical that says, "The holder shall wear corrective lenses."

Color vision deficiency is another visual glitch in the road to happy aviating, but a minor one that has absolutely nothing to do with age. You can be stone color blind and still fly, but you'll carry a restriction that says, "Not valid for night flying or color signal control." Again, there are ways to have the restriction removed by passing an acceptable alternative color vision test. Read all about vision online.

Health problems

Boiling down the regulations to the essential facts, it looks as if common sense is at the core of the way in which the regs look at health problems. Granted, there are lots of stories about common sense not always being a major part of FAA enforcement procedures, but the regs make sense when they say that you can't fly if you have a problem, or are being treated for a problem, that would stop you from passing an FAA physical. This ranges from taking an antihistamine for your allergies to a long list of other medications, to surgery and even a severely smashed toe. If you can't pass a physical in that condition, or it interferes with the safe conduct of the flight, you are violating a regulation.

Elevated Blood Pressure

These days you don't have to have many years behind you to experience elevated blood pressure. Just living life can do it. However, it is almost axiomatic that as you age, your blood pressure will trend upwards. The FAA's limits are 155/95, but even if you're hovering well below that, your doctor may have you on medication to keep it in check. Most blood pressure medications are acceptable to FAA, and you can bring the required paperwork to your aviation medical examiner.

Heart Problems

When talking about heart problems and flying, there are a lot of variations on the theme, and each is treated on a case-by-case basis. We went to Gary Crump, AOPA's director of medical certification, and worked up a list of heart conditions that will and will not fly (pardon the pun) with the FAA. Remember, every case is different, and one heart attack may not be just like every other one.

Heart conditions that can be cleared with an FAA special issuance include:

  • coronary artery disease
  • heart attack (myocardial infarction)
  • coronary bypass surgery, stents, angioplasty
  • arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation
  • valve replacement, valve repair 

Just remember that most heart problems require up to six months of recovery and stabilization as well as thorough evaluations after the recovery period, including at the minimum treadmill exercise testing. Read more online.

Prescription Drugs

One of the givens about getting older is that we find ourselves carrying around little bottles with cryptic labels on them. Prescriptions can become a way of life. If there's a single area that is both misunderstood and underestimated by the general pilot population, aging or not, it is the area of both prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

The FAA looks at drugs (and they consider everything right down to and including aspirin to be a drug) the same as it does everything else in the medical area: Will the medication stop you from passing a physical (this includes honestly answering the list of questions) and will it affect the safety of a flight?

The agency has evaluated most commonly available drugs and created an extensive list of which are and are not approved for flight. AOPA has created a  database of medications showing which medications are approved, and on what basis. If in doubt, or the drug in question is not on the list, call AOPA's Medical Certification Department at 800/872-2672.

Additional Resources

Ageless Wonder - Now's the time to fly
Wanted: Mature adult to take flying lessons.
AOPA Online, December 2010

Job Opportunities for Older Pilots
Maturity can be a bonus as you hunt for a flying job.
AOPA Flight Training, January 2009

An appetite for aviation
This (45-year-old) Food Network star likes being a student pilot
AOPA Flight Training, August 2008

Reverse sensing
Son becomes mom's flight instructor
AOPA Flight Training, July 2007

Cross-country countdown
A recreational pilot tours the nation
AOPA Flight Training, February 2007

Obstacles or opportunities
Perseverance pays off
AOPA Flight Training, August 2006

A higher calling
AOPA Flight Training, April 2006

Jumping right in
Putting the technology to work
AOPA Flight Training, August 2005

Flying again
Aloft after a 37-year absence
AOPA Flight Training, June 2005

'I am a pilot'
Perseverance pays off
AOPA Flight Training, May 2005

Why We Fly: An Unlikely Pilot
From apprehension to almost-owner
AOPA Flight Training, January 2005 

Flying at the Centennial
By Jeff Pardo,
AOPA Flight Training, March 2000 

From The AOPA Archives

Getting Back into Flying

Frequently asked questions about hearing and vision

Resuming the Journey: A journey that began with backcountry flights in Alaska took twists and turns for one woman to become a pilot.
By Kathy Dondzila
July 2012

Medical Briefing: Flying After 70
By Willard D. Sharpe
AOPA Flight Training, March 2000

Instructor Tips
Older Students
By Robert I. Snow
AOPA Flight Training, January 1998

Out Of The Pattern
Older Pilots- Better Students?
By Amy Laboda
AOPA Flight Training, August 1996

You're Never Too Old To Fly
By Charles LeMenager
AOPA Flight Training, May 1995