“Some studies say that cognitive decline in ageing pilots is as big a threat as fatigue and substance abuse… however, other studies don’t!”

What follows is an account sent to us by a Pilot who wanted to share their own experiences and how they dealt with the situation. They make no claims about their experience other than hoping it may be of interest and possible help to other pilots. We are tremendously grateful to them. 

My Experiences

We are all human and all our bodies deteriorate with age. What is written here can only be a generalisation of the situation: some individuals will always perform better than 'average'. However, flying is one of those occupations where such deterioration could have a catastrophic effect on many people's lives. In fact some studies say that cognitive decline in ageing pilots is as big a threat as fatigue and substance abuse and is also very insidious. At the age of 61 I find this a little daunting and depressing! However........other studies don't!

 

In fact, results of age-related studies on pilots are mixed. Some document age-related decline in performance, especially when task demands are high. Such conclusions suggest that the brain adapts to mild and/or moderate cognitive impairment which makes detecting problems during normal activities difficult. However, during an emergency or other stressful situation then performance is impaired.

Through "age 60 or so" cognitive skills remain generally good. After this age, generally, memory, attention, resistance to fatigue, night vision, spatial orientation and perceptual speed will start falling away but verbal skills will remain at a good level. In other words, as the error rate increases in other areas the pilot's ability to 'talk his way out of it' remains high!

 

How does all this rather negative information affect the older pilot?

For many flyers aviation is as much an avocation as it is a vocation. It's part of their sense of personal identity. Fear of losing that connection may be very strong. This may lead a pilot to be in denial that they may be putting themselves and others at risk. Many pilots are not prepared economically to either retire or change their careers. This puts strong financial pressure on them to continue to fly. So, operators can't count on self-reporting as their primary method of identifying a pilot who is symptomatic of significant cognitive decline. Psychologically, an ageing pilot may be a risk that needs to be eliminated!

 

So, what, if anything, can be done to reduce risk?

Corporately, blanket age limits are in place in most countries although some, such as Australia and New Zealand, seem a little more enlightened? Ideally much more 'tailored' testing should be introduced such that different individuals will be able to fly to different ages depending on their test results. This will probably be prohibitively expensive to the aviation industry! On an individual basis the 'usual suspects' can be implemented: diet, exercise (avoiding strenuous activity), thinking positively, reducing stress and avoiding rushed schedules.

 

On a personal basis I have already decided I'll never do another type rating as I feel any “crystallised intelligence' I may have, by virtue of my length of time on my current aircraft, helps me survive on the line. Also, as the working days become ever longer due to both the company and EASA I have gone part-time to aid recovery from 5 long days.

 

So, psychological impact?

For some not too much: for others.......huge! We are all human and all our bodies deteriorate with age. What is written here can only be a generalisation of the situation: some individuals will always perform better than 'average'.

Pilot experience - Ageing

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