Ageing Pilots


Aviation is one industry where ageing is an important aspect in relation to safe and efficient operations. The changes the body and mind incur as we age can effect our flying performance and safety. As we get older we may get wiser, however our body can become less healthy, less reliable and more limiting. For this reason regulations have been put in place to limit pilot operations based on age.

Aging Pilots (featuring Prof. Daniel Morrow)
(Video embedded from Youtube on 21 August 2012)

The Age 60 Rule

The Age 60 Rule was put into action by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1959 and has since been under considerable controversy. The rule prevents a person engaged in operations conducted under Part 121 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) from serving as a pilot or co-pilot once they reach the age of 60. However, various studies assessing the relationship between age, experience, and pilot performance have been carried out over the past two decades with significantly different results, revealing age to be neither valid nor reliable in predicting a pilot’s ability to fly. A better indicator of suitability for flying a transport aircraft safely is a pilot’s individual health and cognitive status, as well as their training, skill, experience, and proficiency.

Also, it is important to note that the age limit choice of 60 years for commercial air transport operations was an arbitrary one and there is currently a similar lack of justification for making the age limit 55 or 65 years old.

Advantages of Age


Despite the disadvantages that aging can have on pilot performance, older pilots are often found to perform as good as their younger counterparts due to their expertise. This is because, in the same manner that experts can get around many of the inherent processing limitations, an expert may also be able to avoid much of the drop in performance that is associated with aging. Although younger individuals may be faster, their knowledge base is yet to be developed, whereas older more experienced individuals have knowledge which they can use to solve problems. Also, in addition to having acquired declarative knowledge, experts have a large body of procedural knowledge and many of the procedural rules become combined over time into larger rules to produce efficient action sequences.

There is also a fundamental difference to the organization of knowledge that the expertise of an older person has compared to a younger novice. The retrieval of information is much easier due to the large body of well structured knowledge in which an expert can see meaningful patterns at once, make deductions from just parts of information, regularly review how they see their current situation, and foresee future conditions. The experienced pilot can quickly retrieve the right way to act from their memory due to their accurate assessment of the current situation. As soon as they recognize the conditions they can do a task automatically due to the large number of procedural rules that experts have. Also, their expertise allows them to cope with novel problems by making effective use of their large amount of knowledge. In addition, experts show metacognitive capabilities which include knowing what one does and doesn’t know, being able to plan ahead, making efficient use of one’s time and resources, and being able to monitor and edit one’s efforts when solving a problem.

Disadvantages of Age

Due to the nature of a pilot’s work and the demands that are placed on an individual’s abilities, the process of aging is of particular importance to a pilot. The natural and expected process is that as one becomes older, there is a gradual deterioration of some of the body’s physical components and sensory functions, however because this degree of deterioration varies greatly from person to person, a point of reference such as skill and judgement levels is required to measure the physical and mental changes occurring over time.

Handling stress

The first change to manifest is certain bodily stresses, especially fatigue, becoming more difficult to handle as a pilot ages. Airline pilots are considered at their peak at age 45 due to their experience and skill which they have gained over time, however for a combat pilot, due to the extra stresses of military flying, this age marks an end point.

Reaction time

The body’s reaction time, efficiency, and recovery from climatic extremes slows down as it gets older. Quickness of response increases from childhood through youth and then begins to decline with maturity, so a younger person can react more quickly and strongly than an older person in response to urgent situations, there are some older persons however, that can retain their quickness of response to a level of younger individuals. Despite this, a slower reaction time may be more significant in landing procedures in which a large number of actions must be carried out rapidly.


Due to the gradual loss of elasticity, the lens of the eye may be unable to focus properly on near objects as a person approaches the age of 45, making it more difficult to read instruments, charts, or radio controls. However, the eye also becomes more far-sighted, allowing it to be easier for an older pilot to search the sky for other aircraft. The ability of the eye to adjust to darkness also declines with increasing age, especially after age 60. The pupils have a propensity to become smaller and the membrane at the back of the eyeball becomes less sensitive to light. The eye of an older person can adapt to the dark as quickly as an eye in a younger person, however it requires about two and a half times more illumination at night, so a pilot of 60 may need 10 times more light than a 25-year-old. A younger pilot therefore would be of more benefit in landings under minimal light conditions.

Other health problems

There are other health problems that predominantly affect ageing pilots. These include;

  • Gout; result of excess uric acid in blood that crystallizes in the joints.
  • Arthritis; (osteo & rheumatoid) effects the joints
  • Back, hip and joint Pain; result of poor posture, high 'g's, heavy lifting, or extended periods of activity
  • Piles; result of extended sitting or constipation

What Can We Do?

To create and maintain our maximum potential healthiness takes a bit of knowledge and constant effort. Many things can help in achieving this such as;

  • Diet and exersize; "you are what you eat"
  • Aviod strenuous activities; low impact exercise is good, be careful when heavily lifting
  • Exercise the mind; challenge yourself to a sudoku
  • Think positive; positive thinking is proven to reduce poor health
  • Reduce stress; try to reduce stress in life e.g. avoid rushed schedules
  • Seek help; maintain regular visits to the doctor
1. Tsang, P. S., & Vidulich, M. A. (2003). Principles and practice of aviation psychology. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
2. Pilotfriend. (2000). Age. Retrieved October 29 2011, from
3. Robson, D. (2008). Human Being Pilot. Cheltenham, Victoria: Aviation Theory Centre Pty Ltd.

Want to know more?

Article - Gray Skies: For Aging Pilots
An article writen by Scientific American on how experience can compensates for the declining mental agilit of aging pilots

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