Older pilots performed worse than younger pilots on several tests in a recent three-year study, but over the three years their abilities declined less than those of the young pilots. Importantly, with the ultimate test of avoiding other planes the older pilots actually did improved more over time.

The study suggests good piloting relies on a mix of skill and experience.

Researchers tested 118 non-commercial airline pilots, age 40-69, every year for three years. Each had between 300 and 15,000 hours of flight time. The tests: accuracy of executing communications; scanning cockpit instruments to detect emergencies; executing a visual approach landing; and traffic avoidance.

Older participants initially performed worse. But they showed less of a decline in overall scores during the three-year study. And over time, the older pilots' traffic-avoidance performances improved more than with younger pilots.

Experience counts

Importantly, pilots with advanced FAA pilot ratings and certifications showed less performance decline over time, regardless of age.

The researchers speculate that these pilots have what scientists call "crystallized intelligence," a phenomenon seen in top musicians and expert chess players.

"These findings show the advantageous effect of prior experience and specialized expertise on older adults' skilled cognitive performances," said Joy L. Taylor of the Stanford/VA Aging Clinical Research Center in Palo Alto, California. "Our discovery has broader implications beyond aviation to the general issue of aging in the workplace and the objective assessment of competency in older workers."

The study, announced today, is detailed in the Feb. 27 issue of the journal Neurology.

Pilots could get older

The findings come as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is considering a controversial proposal to raise the mandatory age of retirement for commercial airline pilots from 60 to 65.

"Experience counts," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in announcing the proposal in January. "It's an added margin of safety." The Air Line Pilots Association, made up mostly of younger pilots, opposes the change.

Since 1959, U.S. pilots have been banned from flying commercial airplanes once they turn 60. Last November, the United Nations' aviation organization, ICAO, increased the upper age limit to 65, provided the second pilot in a cockpit is under age 60.

"Foreign airlines have demonstrated that experienced pilots in good health can fly beyond age 60 without compromising safety," Blakey said.

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