Old Bold Pilots: Aging Pilot Population
- Erika Armstrong
How old do you feel? How old do you look? How old are you on the inside versus the outside?
How old you are might look and feel different if it's the last leg of a five-day trip opposed to the first day! Now that we're living longer, there are vast differences on how we age. There are 75-year-olds running marathons and 20-year-olds so obese they need wheelchairs to move. Given the variables, how does the aviation industry justify and analyze mandatory retirement ages?
Look Back First
If you were born in the beginning of the 19th century, no country in the world had a life expectancy over 40 years. As science and technology grew, the world divided between those who lived outside of poverty and those who remained impoverished. If you were born in 1968 in America, your life expectancy was 74 for women and 66 for men. For babies born in 2019, their life expectancy is 81 for women and 76 for men.
The variables are enormous, but the common thread is that through a variety of reasons, we are living longer. Not just lasting longer, but also staying productive longer. Not necessarily by choice but often by circumstance. The byproduct of living longer is the need to have money to keep the momentum going. This means reevaluating the pilot retirement age.
The Rules Are Different
Given the current pilot shortage and aging pilot population, the question being asked is: Can/should an employer impose a maximum age requirement for pilots operating private aircraft for hire under Part 91 or 135 of the FARs to retire at age 65 like the rule imposed by the FAA on commercial pilots operating under Part 121 (airlines) of the FAR? Asking a pilot to retire would create a substantial risk for illegal discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
To summarize the age requirements:
- The "Age 60 Rule" in the airlines was in place from 1959 until 2007, but as a result of the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act, they raised the maximum age for Part 121 pilots to 65. But this only applies to FAR Part 121, which means that private and commercial pilots (i.e. Business Aviation pilots for hire) are lumped into the same general category. Because the "Age 65 Rule" does not apply to Business Aviation pilots, corporate flight departments have no law limiting a pilot's age. They are having to let pilots self-regulate on when they think they need to retire as long as they can pass their flight physicals.
- The aviation industry uses Classes of medical certificates as the determination of health/safety and level of flying. It's an evaluation based on a short visit with a flight physician. Generally, any pilot performing PIC functions of an ATP in an aircraft requiring a type-rating must have a First-Class medical. Second in Command in Part 121 must hold a Second Class medical unless you're over 60 years of age, in which case, you need a First Class Medical. Some operators simply require all pilots to have a First Class medical.
- Second Class is required for all other operations that carry passengers for hire and is good for 12 months if over 40, after that, you can use the privileges of a third class medical (it remains a 2nd class medical). It's important to note that commercial pilots flying with a valid FAA second class medical in some ICAO countries may not be in compliance because ICAO does not recognize a Second Class medical for any commercial operations. A Third Class is appropriate for private pilots (not for hire) so we won’t be including this in the discussion. Click Summary of Medical Standards for details.
Part 135 rules depend on the kind and type of operation and types of aircraft. PICs on either a turbojet or any airplane having 10 or more passenger seats must have a First Class medical, but if you're flying anything smaller than that or flying as SIC, you just need a Second Class medical.
What this all means is that once a pilot retires from the airlines, they could remain flying in a corporate Part 91 or Part 135 flight department. One method a flight department could use to alleviate safety concerns is simply requiring all its pilots to have a First-Class medical certificate. This doesn't present as much risk from an age discrimination perspective. It's not typically required for Part 91/135 corporate operations, but this could enhance screening without potential liability. Or, simply having a company rule in the FOM/GOM that requires all pilots to retire at a certain age, as long as it's known at the time of accepting the pilot position. You can't change it once someone is hired without risking age discrimination issues.
Keeping Pilots in the Pipeline – Without Clogging It
There is so much knowledge and wisdom in the brain of a pilot reaching retirement age that can only be obtained from experience. It's important to use this valuable resource in perpetuating aviation safety.
One way of tapping into these brains is using them in training positions and as check pilots. FAR 135.338 (B)(5) states that flight instructors must hold at least a Third-Class class medical certificate. The same part section (E) states that an airman who does not hold a medical certificate may serve as a flight instructor in an aircraft if functioning as a non-required crewmember.
The rules allow for you to act as a flight instructor while also serving a pilot role (PIC or SIC). You can also act as a flight instructor while sitting in the Jumpseat and not as a required crewmember. As a flight instructor, you could be a required crewmember and other times sit in the Jumpseat to conduct a checkride. This also allows you to provide flight instruction if the crew was unsatisfactory on a maneuver.
Some pilots race toward the retirement finish line. They know they're done and have no problem walking away and not looking back. Been there, done that. But there is a growing segment of retiring airline pilots who still feel they have a few more productive years left and want to remain in the cockpit. Business Aviation is their opportunity. It might be an adjustment operating without seniority lists or the rigidity and (mundane) routes of Part 121 operations, but Business Aviation offers a growing opportunity to stay active in an aviation career.
It's hard to admit when we're at an age where safety becomes a concern. No one wants to admit they're too old for anything, but setting an age limit which blankets everyone isn't logical.
What does a Safety Manager/Director of Operations/Chief Pilot do when they know a pilot has reached an age where it has become a safety issue? Reflexes, memory, hearing, and eyesight that might pass in a quiet doctor's office are challenged when flying long duty days in bad weather and high traffic areas. Add in mountain terrain, mechanical issues, and personality clashes in the cockpit and cumulatively it equals an operation that edges on the circle of safety.
There is no easy answer. The only thing for certain is it would be a waste to not allow pilots to stay in the pipeline once they've reached an arbitrary age. Beyond laws and age discrimination lawsuits, there needs to be an honest external and internal conversation to keep the aviation world safe. Towards the end of a pilot's career, the teeter totter that rocks back and forth between good and bad days might spend more time on the bad day side, indicating it's time to retire, at least from the cockpit.
There are so many peripheral positions in aviation that need experience that the hope is these knowledgeable pilot brains are willing to come back into the training environment and share their stories. There is such a thing as old, bold pilots and we need to keep them in operation. The worst thing you can do to an airplane is to put it in the back corner of a hangar and never fly it. It's the worst thing we can do to our pilot, too.
Let's keep these pilots flying, even if it's in the hangar.
Advanced Aircrew Academy would like to hear about your old bold pilot story. Have you come back from retirement? Do you have a pilot who won’t admit it’s time to retire? Did you leave the airlines and come back to work in Business Aviation? Erika Armstrong will follow up with your stories and suggestions about how to deal with the aging pilot population – firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about the 75 core topics that Advanced Aircrew Academy offers for Business Aviation eLearning, check out the AAA website, email email@example.com, or call 843-557-1266.