Study Says Older Pilots Perform Worse at Some Flying Tasks

Older pilots performed worse than youngerpilots on several tests in a recent three-year study, but over the three yearstheir abilities declined less than those of the young pilots. Importantly, withthe ultimate test of avoiding other planes the older pilots actually didimproved more over time.

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

Researcherstested 118 non-commercial airlinepilots, age 40-69, every year for three years. Each had between 300 and 15,000hours of flighttime. The tests: accuracy of executing communications; scanning cockpitinstruments to detect emergencies; executing a visual approach landing; and trafficavoidance.

Older participants initially performed worse. But theyshowed less of a decline in overall scores during the three-year study. Andover time, the older pilots' traffic-avoidance performances improved more thanwith younger pilots.

Experience counts

Importantly, pilotswith advanced FAA pilot ratings and certifications showed less performancedecline over time, regardless of age.

Theresearchers speculate that these pilots have what scientists call"crystallized intelligence,"a phenomenon seen in top musicians and expert chessplayers.

"Thesefindings show the advantageous effect of prior experience and specializedexpertise 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 thegeneral issue of aging in the workplace and the objective assessment ofcompetency in older workers."

The study, announced today, is detailed in the Feb. 27 issueof 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 ofretirement for commercial airline pilotsfrom 60 to 65.

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

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

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

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Rob has been producing internet content since the mid-1990s. He was a writer, editor and Director of Site Operations at starting in 1999. He served as Managing Editor of LiveScience since its launch in 2004. He then oversaw news operations for the's then-parent company TechMediaNetwork's growing suite of technology, science and business news sites. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California, is an author and also writes for Medium.