Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FAA should consider the age of private pilots

The skies over Upstate New York have been anything but friendly to small aircraft in recent months.  In July, a small plane crashed in Parma claiming the life of the 88 year-old pilot. That same day, a plane crashed in Royalton and the 79 year-old pilot died from his injuries days later. Last month saw a 77 year-old man die when his plane crashed in Stillwater Reservoir in the Adirondacks while a man age 78 died, along with his teenage passenger, when his plane clipped another one in the Alden.

All four events were tragic and had one common denominator – the pilots were over 75.

We as a society, collectively and individually, do a significant amount of hand-wringing over taking the keys to the car from older senior citizens. It’s painful when you know that your loved ones aren’t who they used to be physically or mentally and you have to take from them one of their last vestiges of personal freedom – their wheels.

Despite the numerous private and public conversations around this matter when it comes to the roads (proposals have ranged from a mandatory date of license expiration to age-related tests), almost no one is talking about focusing that same attention on the sky.

Although driving a car ranks among the most dangerous things that your average person will do in his lifetime, piloting a small plane ranks right up there. While the traffic and therefore statistical probability for any sort of accident are minute, the ramifications could be considerably more significant.

What if the plane that crashed in Royalton went a mile further north and plummeted into the hamlet of Gasport? What if the Adirondack crash occurred at Stillwater’s busy boat launch? What if any of these crashes happened at one of those popular fly-in/drive-in breakfasts? We would be talking about mass casualties in every one of those scenarios.

Some will chalk this up to fear mongering, but I’m only being a realist. Bad things can and do happen and such events are always closer to occurring than one might think. That said, we cannot discount the very real relationship that exists between plane crashes across Upstate this year and last, some fatal some not, and seniors at the controls.

This is a situation, conversation, and regulation that should be best managed by the Federal Aviation Administration. But, the FAA is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to this issue.

In 2009 the FAA set the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots at 65, proving that they understand the link between safety and the loss of energy, reaction time and memory that come with increased age.

Yet, on the other hand, the FAA doesn’t view all aircraft in that way.  There is no “retirement” age for air hobbyists. They could fly till they’ve entered their second century of life. God bless them if they did…or, more rightly, could.

The FAA shouldn’t be able to indiscriminately force someone to give up their private pilot’s license on age alone. I know many 80-somethings who have more vigor and vitality than folks one-third their age. But, at the same time, for every budding Jack LaLanne, there’s someone of that age who can barely move, see, or react.

If the FAA were serious about maintaining safety in the skies and accommodating our ever-aging population (Baby Boomers, anyone?), they should modify their standards and periodically conduct age-related tests. The FAA could use flight simulators or more detailed renewal exams to test the reactions, strength, and mental acuity of older fliers.

But, the FAA is actually heading in the other direction.

In April, the FAA announced that they were in the process of expanding the medical examination exclusion currently provided to light sport aircraft. Under the new rules, the FAA would allow most all private pilots to never have to take again what is called a third class medical exam. Going forward, the new rules would allow pilots of small planes to show their medical fitness only by producing a valid driver’s license. Their thought: If it’s good enough for the DMV, it’s good enough for the FAA.  

There are certain inevitabilities that come with age. We should not ignore them and we should manage them and their impacts accordingly, especially when it comes to public safety. If we don’t, you can’t help but worry about the areas around our rural and suburban airports in the years to come.

From the 06 October 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

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