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Answering age-old questionsAnswering age-old questions

Aviation writer Mark R. Twombly has been flying for almost 40 years.

Aviation writer Mark R. Twombly has been flying for almost 40 years. He lives in Southern Florida.

The air traffic controller rang me up to pass on a bunch of new information — a new heading, a new altitude, and a new frequency for the next controller on down the road. I began to read back the instructions, but had to hesitate after repeating the heading and altitude. My brain was good for absorbing two items of information; apparently three was one too many.

The controller recognized the mental lapse and gave me the frequency once more. No big deal, just a small goof. But I was embarrassed, and it set me to thinking. I have quite a few good years left before I can properly be called a senior citizen. Yet, I have these moments, and it makes me wonder if I'm getting an early start on seniorhood. Was my forgetting the frequency just one of those occasional, insignificant mistakes that occur in the cockpit, or was it something more sinister — a harbinger of the cognitive infirmities that accompany advancing age?

It's normal for a middle-aged pilot to worry about the effects of the years piling on — lapses in short-term memory, deteriorating hearing and night vision, loss of strength and mobility, and greater susceptibility to fatigue.

It's tough to face the reality that the mental agility, quick reflexes, and athletic eye-hand coordination of my youth have gone the way of my youth — and hair. Youth rules in most things in our society, and I've had to make peace with the fact that, even at my tender mid-fifties age, I'm out of society's youthful line of sight.

Our focus on being young, or at least acting like it, has the unfortunate consequence of largely depriving senior citizens of their due — the honor, respect, and reverence that many other cultures bestow on their older and wiser citizens. Fortunately, that's not quite true in general aviation.

We pilots also place a high value on the qualities that accrue with age, namely been-there, done-that experience, sober judgment, and insightful wisdom. Experience trumps age in the cockpit — to a point. Some insurance underwriters are showing increasing hostility towards older pilots, as evidenced by the trend towards premium surcharges based on age alone.

The issue of age versus experience in the context of aviation safety has been the subject of countless and mostly inconclusive studies. One of the latest is a September 2005 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Safety Study on factors involved in general aviation weather accidents. The report takes note of the general befuddlement over the effects of advancing age in a pilot, saying that "prior studies of age-related aviation risk have produced remarkably different findings, including a linear increase in risk with age, a decreasing risk with age, or no relationship between age and accident risk."

The NTSB study compared a group of pilots who had been involved in weather-related accidents with a control group of non-accident pilots. The study found that, although there were differences in ages among the two groups, they did not differ significantly in flying experience as measured by total flight hours, or in how long they had been flying. One notable difference between the two groups, according to the study, was that pilots in the non-accident group began flying at an earlier age than those in the accident group.

Got that? According to the NTSB, the earlier you learn to fly, the less likely you are to be involved in a weather-related accident. Furthermore, the study speculates that someone who learns to fly in his or her late teens or early twenties is likely motivated to become a professional. That person pursued training more aggressively and more consistently throughout life than did an older, less-credentialed pilot who flies for personal recreation or business. Motivation and an early start on training have a positive impact on safety, the report notes.

Here's the exact language from the study: "...the Safety Board concludes that pilots who begin flying earlier in life are at lower risk of being involved in a weather-related GA accident than those who start flying when they are older, and age at first certificate is a better predictor of future accident involvement than age at time of flight."

I'm not exactly sure what "age at time of flight" means, but the study appears to break some interesting new ground. Maybe we've been asking the wrong questions all along. It's not simply age or experience that affect our abilities later in life, but a combination of the two along with the X factor — when and why we learned to fly in the first place.

More work is needed to conclusively determine how much age, experience, and other factors such as training history and motivation affect us individually. AOPA and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation have launched a series of studies on age and pilot safety that will probe some fundamental age-related issues: What kinds of accidents do older pilots have? What causes those accidents? And, what actually happens to our piloting skills as we age?

I plan on flying for many more years, so I'm looking forward to some answers.

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