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Crystal clear

Mark R. Twombly is a writer and editor who has been flying since 1968.

Mark R. Twombly is a writer and editor who has been flying since 1968.

I'm not getting older, I'm getting.... Well, I seem to have forgotten just what it is I am getting — other than older, of course — but I'm pretty sure the missing words are not "to be a worse pilot."

For one, I just finished two weeks of intensive simulator-based aircraft training, and the trainers don't let you walk out of places like that a worse pilot than when you walked in.

For another, the scientists say so. Not about me specifically, but about pilots in general. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that researchers affiliated with Stanford University and the Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, California, have been studying the effects of aging on pilot performance. They have concluded that skills do indeed deteriorate with advancing age, but activity and experience can more than make up for what is lost.

The three-year study began with general aviation pilots between the ages of 40 and 69. The pilots were grouped into private pilots, those with IFR ratings, and professionals. The simulated flying was conducted in simple piston singles over flat terrain with nearby mountains, and involved air traffic control communications, random systems emergencies, and traffic conflicts.

"Not surprisingly," science reporter Carl T. Hall wrote, "the most highly skilled pilots scored best as the testing began, and their performance held up as the testing was repeated during the three years. At the same time, the older pilots generally had lower scores than younger pilots in the same skill category.

"As the experiment continued, however, the older pilots improved more than the younger pilots. Overall, pilots in their 60s improved on average over the three years, while those in their 40s and 50s declined.

"The younger pilots still had an edge despite the narrowing age gap. But the findings suggest that people with the most expertise who stay active in their careers don't necessarily lose ground when they reach traditional retirement age.

"Instead," Hall concluded, "the study suggested that 'crystallized knowledge' based on years of practice may allow pilots — like musicians or athletes, and possibly many other categories of 'older expert workers' — to adapt surprisingly well to the declines of normal aging."

That sounds like good news to me. Here I thought my brain was responding to age by slowly fracturing, but all along that tinkling sound in my head has been random bits of piloting knowledge coming together — crystallizing, I suppose — to form a handy reference work that I can call on as needed in the years to come — that reference manual is a work in progress.

Edgar Soto is about to turn 28, exactly half my age. I met him at the simulator training facility. We had class together, then he flew right seat for me on my first couple of sim sessions. It was evident from the get-go that he was infused with a great deal of confidence, matched only by his prodigious energy. "I hate to wait," he said by way of confirmation.

During the first sim ride Edgar's quick hands flitted around his side of the cockpit like a concert pianist's. He punched buttons, turned knobs, set settings. Quickly. The guy over on my side was plodding, often hesitating, and occasionally missing the mark. The scene reminded me of asking my 18-year-old son for help with a problem on my laptop. He waits impatiently for about 15 seconds while I slowly jab at the keys trying to make the obstreperous machine hew to my commands. Then he shoves me aside and, with fingers flying, quickly wrestles the electronic monster to the ground and into submission.

In my defense I was totally unfamiliar with the cockpit, and it was night. Simulated night, but dark is dark. Edgar didn't seem to require excuses. I was impressed. Later, he commented that he is a 1,600-hour pilot. "Youth," I muttered.

Edgar did have a youthful mind and prime eye-hand coordination on his side, but there was more to his performance than just age — or rather the lack of it. Turns out he is a controller at Executive Airport in Orlando. So, in addition to youth he is blessed with the natural talents found in the best controllers — the ability to comprehend things quickly, and to think ahead and understand what will be happening — hallmarks of superior situational awareness.

Controllers also are used to formal training; they play all day with buttons and knobs, and they often work in the dark — a tower cab at night or radar room anytime. Put all of that together with the fact that Edgar is an enthusiastic pilot, and you have a top performer in a complex cockpit. Reminds me of my friends Doug Turner and Don Hensley, both retired career controllers and both excellent pilots.

Edgar finished his training and went back to Orlando. I was enrolled in a longer course, so I stayed and plodded on. Gradually, I found my form in the sim. With practice I responded faster to events; found the right buttons, knobs, and switches the first time; and anticipated what was coming up and what I needed to do to deal with it. Just as that Stanford/veterans affairs study found, I was improving with age.

I can hear the crystals forming now.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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