How to Stay in the Left Seat and Out of the Rocking Chair

By Jim Gorman, 2000+ Hour Instrument-Rated Commercial Pilot, Single Engine Land and Sea, Private Glider

June 2018

I used to say that I hoped to keep flying until I was 75 years old. But that was when I was a kid of 55 and my self-imposed deadline was two decades off. Now that I’m pushing 70, I realize I’m having too much fun to hang it up so soon. There are a lot of us going through the same thing. More than 85,000 pilots are 65 and older1. And most of us want to keep flying as long as we can. But how long is that? How do we stay in the left seat longer? And how do we know when it’s time to give it up?

If we flew for the airlines, the decision would have been made for us at age 65. But, like so many things in GA, now including even our medical airworthiness, we’re on the honor system to determine when we’re no longer safe. Many non-professional pilots fly throughout their 70s and beyond. There’s even a group called The United Flying Octogenarians, whose members have flown as PIC past age 80.

Gerry Parker is an active Master Flight Instructor at age 82. His advice for flying longevity is simple and the best excuse to go flying any of us could ask for: “Fly as frequently as you can. At least once or twice a month. Simulator time can sharpen up your instrument skills.” He adds, “If I get to the point where I can’t stay ahead of the airplane or keep up with what ATC is doing, I’ll give it up or fly something simpler, like a Piper Cub off a grass strip.”

Another inspirational example of a guy who’s got a long way to go before he hangs up his headset for the last time is Richard Druschel, a 73-year-old CFI and recipient of the Wright Brothers Award for 50 years of safe flying. He flew Gulfstreams and was a Citation Check Pilot for General Motors, before retiring at 65. But instead of giving up flying, he found other ways to stay involved and interested in aviation. And that’s his advice to elder pilots: Look for excuses to fly. That could mean volunteer efforts like Young Eagles, Angel Flight or Pilots N Paws, or earning a new rating. He suggests, “Take a course. Learn to fly a floatplane or taildragger. You may never use it, but it’s something different that will challenge you. And it will force you to use all those skills you learned when you were a student pilot. It’s a different airplane, you’ve got to fly it differently. You’ll be learning to fly all over again.”

Dick also stresses the importance of maintaining one’s health, which brings us to the observations of Dr. Gregory Pinnell, MD, an instrument-rated pilot in his Cherokee Six. He is a Senior AME and Senior Flight Surgeon for the U.S. Air Force Reserve and has served as a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association's Aeromedical Advisory Council. Dr. Pinnell advises, “What protects a pilot is good management of chronic disease and introspection. Watch out for risk factors, make sure you get a good biennial flight review and be willing to recognize the fact there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t.” It should be noted that Dr. Pinnell is not a fan of BasicMed, especially for aging aviators. He says, “Older pilots have unique safety risk factors across all forms of transportation, including motorcycle riders, drivers, etc. If you got rid of the biennial flight review, you’d see an incremental increase in accidents. If you got rid of the annual inspection of an aircraft, you’d probably see an increase in accidents. And the medical is no different.” But if you’re going to fly under BasicMed, he advises, “Stay in touch with your doctors. Make sure you follow their advice. Practice good sound health care, keep your weight down, take a look at any medications you’re taking, look for any potential side effects that could cause you problems while you’re flying and get a good flight review every couple of years. Hopefully your CFI will tell you if you’re good to fly or if you’re not.”

Another source that will weigh in on your fitness to fly is your insurance company.

I have a friend who continued to fly into his 90s in the homebuilt Falco he completed when he was 80. However, after he had a gear-up landing, his insurance company insisted he fly with a safety pilot. Gerry Parker, the 82-year-old CFI, still has the blessing of his insurance company to instruct in high performance and pressurized aircraft. Gerry suggests you talk with an underwriter one-on-one, so they can tell that you’re still sharp. After all, insurance underwriters have a fair amount of discretion in who gets insurance and under what conditions. Not a bad idea.

As for me, I’m going to take all this advice to heart. Especially the part about flying as often as I can so I can do it as long as I can. Doctor’s orders.

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1www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5206a2.htm

Jim Gorman is an instrument rated commercial pilot with glider and seaplane ratings and more than 2,000 hours in the air. He flies a Beechcraft F33-A Bonanza and is owner of Gorman360, Inc., an advertising agency. When not busy making sure his plane is in tip-top shape, he volunteers for Pilots N Paws and other humanitarian organizations.


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