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Gray Skies: For Aging Pilots, Experience Compensates for Declining Mental Agility

A three-year study of noncommercial airplane pilots finds that more hours in the air can offset the effects of aging
pilot airline faa plane



© ISTOCKPHOTO/STEPHEN JONES
As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) weighs a proposal to raise the retirement age of commercial airline pilots from 60 to 65 years old, a new report has been released showing that experience compensates for age when it comes to flying.

Researchers studied the performance of 118 noncommercial pilots from 40 to 69 years of age during flight simulation exercises (in a cockpit modeled after a single-engine plane) for three years. They assessed their response time to air traffic control communication, plane traffic and engine trouble, and, also, their landing skills. The scores of these individual tests were then combined.

The pilots were divided into three categories of expertise, according to the study, published in Neurology: certified flight instructors or airline-qualified pilots, those capable of flying only when visibility is good, and those able to fly in poorer visibility. Each of the pilots in the study—all of whom were still flying, had FAA medical certification to fly and had logged over 300 hours of flight time—participated in the flight simulation exercises three times between 2001 to 2003.

"For the baseline scores, it works kind of like a trade-off: the older the age, the lower the performance," says Joy Taylor, study co-author and researcher with the Stanford University/VA Palo Alto Health Care System's Aging Clinical Research Center. "But if you look at the additive factor of expertise, the higher the expertise, then the performance goes up."

Although on average all the study participants experienced declining overall scores over the three-year evaluation period, the simulator scores for older pilots declined significantly less. In fact, the older group showed a marked improvement in the area of avoiding other airborne traffic. "I think it's a visual motor task—a task where you don't have to learn a lot of arbitrary information—whereas in contrast, in the communication task, you get a whole new set of visual information every few seconds … [and therefore] you get more confusability," Taylor says, explaining why the older pilots were able to close the gap with their younger peers. "It's a three-year study, so it's really hard to say how much of it is due to practice and how much is due to aging."

The authors believe the lack of a decline among the most experienced pilots is because of "crystallized intelligence," which Joseph Sirven, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Daniel Morrow, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, describe in an editorial in Neurology as a specialized knowledge base that "supports attention to key relationships between individual items of information, anticipation of likely future events, and coordination of motor movement to respond faster and more accurately." This sort of knowledge, which is critical to musicians, athletes and strategists, is believed to defy aging better than individual memory recollection and normal processing ability.

The FAA is expected to formally propose a new rule by the end of the year to allow pilots over 60 to captain commercial airline flights provided there is another pilot in the cockpit under that age. The public will have a chance to comment before the FAA adopts the new guideline. "The FAA will be happy to review the study," an FAA spokesperson says, "as part of the public comment period."

Taylor declined to comment on how the results of her study might affect the FAA's decision, but she did say that job simulations may offer better evaluations of employee competence than across-the-board age restrictions. "The study underscores the importance of looking at factors other than age alone, with the important factors being: expert knowledge, mental agility and health status," she says. "By using job simulations, that could be potentially the most fair way to go."

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