Retirement age for GA pilots?

Here’s an interesting one – should there be a fixed retirement age for GA (ie light aircraft) private pilots?

Airline, military and other professional pilots have a mandatory retirement age of 65, sometimes younger. And even before retirement age, it is sometimes required that a co-pilot is mandatory and must be under the age of 60. But as such, there is no official retirement age for us recreational and sport pilots.

A recent study in USA (by Alpo Vuorio and others, published in Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance) looked at over 100 fatal accidents involving private pilots in the age range 70 to 92 years over a 10-year period. Pilots in this age range represent a relatively small percentage of the pilot population (around 7% on most recent figures).

The study looked at the possible contribution of anti-depressants and anti-histamines in fatal accidents.

It was found that anti-histamines were present in the blood of almost 20% of the pilots in this age range who died in aviation accidents. The study concluded that this may be because, in this age group, the sedative effects of anti-histamines may be used as sleep medication – but the problem is that anti-histamines reduce REM (‘rapid eye movement’) sleep and therefore may impair performance.

Anti-depressants were present in almost 10% of pilots who died in accidents. While there are anti-depressants which are suitable for use by pilots, there are plenty which are not, because of their negative side-effects, including fatigue, drowsiness and blurred vision. The study also noted that over 12% of fatal accident pilots had been taking three or more different drugs at the time of their fatal accident.

These findings are interesting in the light of the trend towards GP based (rather than Designated Aviation Medical Examiners – DAMEs) for GA and recreational medicals. On the one hand, it could be argued, GP medicals may not be as stringent as those by a DAME, on the other hand it is likely that a pilot’s GP will be more aware of medications which the pilot may be taking and their overall general health.

All this attention on medications should not divert attention from the inexorable process of ageing, which takes its toll on reaction times, physical strength, eyesight, hearing etc etc. Some older friends and colleagues of mine have decided to hang up their flying goggles after a near accident; others took the decision before it was made for them. Whatever our age, we should all fly within our capabilities and watch out for the occasional bounced landing which gradually, almost imperceptibly, becomes the norm. And we all read about Harrison Ford* (age 74) landing on a taxiway, over the top of a waiting airliner, even though he probably has more flying experience than most of us….

As some kind of a safety net, there is a 2-yearly compulsory Aircraft Flight Review (an AFR; used to be called a Bi-Annual Flight Review, or BFR) to at least identify potential pilot shortcomings and give advice on improvement – maybe the check instructor should be asking what medications the pilot has taken in the 48 hours before the review?

But overall, to reduce the chance of an accident, stay fit, sleep well, don’t fly if you’re under the weather(!), avoid anti-histamines and anti-depressants and read the side effects of any and all medications. If in doubt stay on the ground and don’t risk becoming a statistic….whatever your age!

* There is no intention here to suggest that Harrison Ford was taking any medication or any other drugs which may or may not have influenced his decision making


Bi-Annual Flight Review (BFR)

AFRWell the time came again – all too soon – for my PPL medical and bi-annual flight reviews. I can’t believe it’s two years already since the last one… they tell me the speed of time passing is something to do with age, even though I don’t feel a day over 40!

First, the medical. At my age, I have to do a PPL medical every 2 years. My previous doctor, who did about 3 or 4 medicals for me over the years, has decided the demands of CASA are too great and so I had to find a new ‘DAME‘ (designated aviation medical examiner) to go to. Although I left 2-3 weeks before my old medical expired, it was still a bit of a push to get an appointment before the expiry. LESSON 1: leave plenty of time to book your medical!

On the due day, I arrived at 08:30 in the freezing cold and pouring rain of a typical Melbourne winter morning – note: the sun was shining by midday and the temperature was up by about 10 degrees.  I did all the usual tests – eyes/eyesight, ears/earsight (or should that be ‘hearing’?), reflexes, colour vision, peripheral vision, height, weight, blood pressure, and more. In preparation, you now have to fill in an online medical questionnaire on the CASA website and the doctor checks this all through with you. Interestingly, I didn’t have to undergo the dreaded ‘rubber gloved finger’ test this time. I understand that this check is not as reliable as once it was believed to be.

Everything was completed OK and then the doctor told me I had to get an ECG done, as I hadn’t had one in a while. Conveniently, there was a cardiology place almost next door. Indeed I haven’t had an ECG since I can remember and it’s amazing how much the process has changed over the years. The cardiologist wires you up and switches on the machine, which then automatically goes through the individual traces and beams it all via the internet to the central cardiology analyst. It must all have been OK because the medical was issued.

Total cost for the medical: $110 plus $75 CASA processing fee – less than the $210 annual cost of renewing my RA-Aus membership. The ECG was bulk-billed. LESSON 2: the annualised cost renewing your PPL is less than half as much as the annual cost of belonging to RA-Aus.

Next my bi-annual flight review – which I have always called a BFR – but I’m told is officially now called an Aeroplane Flight Review or AFR. Here, at least, some sense has prevailed at CASA and RA-Aus because you can do your AFR in a general aviation VH-registered aircraft and, as well as revalidating your PPL, the same flight also revalidates your RA-Aus Pilot Certificate. LESSON 3: make sure your instructor is both PPL and RA-Aus rated if you want to do just one AFR covering both categories. (If you don’t want to search the CASA website for information on AFRs – a should destroying process – click here for the relevant information; then click the link to download the ‘ratings’ pdf)

I was originally aiming to do my AFR in my A32 Vixxen demonstrator, but a few weeks ago, a flying school made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I was in the tandem-seat tail dragger Interstate Cadet.

I pre-flighted the aircraft and double-checked the weight and balance (the instructor sits in the back) to make sure we were well within limits. Typical of Tyabb, the wind that day was exactly 90 degrees across the main runway, so first test: which is the preferred runway direction in these circumstances? LESSON 4: check ERSA and/or the rule book for your airfield before your AFR.

We taxied out behind a couple of spam cans (sorry, Cessnas) and waited our turn at the holding point. After take-off (watch for that cross-wind!) we turned and climbed out towards French Island, a largish area of land in the middle of Westernport Bay, notorious for its own climate. But above a couple of thousand feet everything was smooth, so we did a few ever-increasingly steep turns and an engine-out forced landing (without actually touching down!). We then trundled over towards Port Phillip Bay – a bit bumpier here, even at almost 3,000 feet and then back towards the naval college at Cerberus. All the time, the instructor was asking me questions, sometimes about the aircraft, sometimes about its flying characteristics, sometimes about the controlled and restricted air space around the area, all gently checking my airmanship and knowledge. LESSON 5: relax, the instructor wants everything to be OK too!

Eventually after almost an hour, the command came to return to Tyabb. We could hear traffic on the radio, so joined down-wind, this time for runway 17. Because of the recent rain, the grass at Tyabb was unserviceable that day so we were landing on the bitumen – not my first choice in a tail dragger with a stiffish cross-wind breeze from the east, which makes for a nice little bit of turbulence as it comes over the hangars on that side of the airfield. Should I 3-point or wheel it on? Decisions decisions… With someone in the back seat, the Interstate likes to 3-point, so in spite of the cross-wind that’s what I opted for. In the event, the wind gods were with me and the landing was OK – not my best greaser but certainly quite acceptable. So we taxied in and shut down.

The AFR is really quite straightforward, particularly if you fly regularly as I do. I guess if you haven’t flown for a year, you’ll need to do a fair bit of swotting to make sure you have the answers and a few circuits to re-awaken your flying skills before the AFR!  There’s no pass or fail with an AFR – just useful reminders, even lessons, to keep you flying safe. Thanks to Nick Caudwell at Peninsula Aero Club for his advice and signing my logbook! Thoroughly recommended – 5 stars.