New Research Backs Competence Tests for Pilot Retirement

March 2, 2007 ( - Stanford University researchers who studied the performance of older pilots have called for a mandatory retirement based on their competence and not the calendar.

Writing in the February 27 issue of the publication Neurology, the researchers found that the skills gap between U.S. airline pilots over age 60 and those in their 40s actually narrowed over time, according to the HealthDay Reporter.

Stanford aging researcher Joy Taylor and her team tested 118 general aviation pilots between 40 and 69 in a flight simulator over a three-year period to measure their performance in a battery of flight-related tasks such as traffic avoidance and communications.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could come up with a ‘functional age’? Instead of saying, ‘you’re 60, you can’t fly,’ to use different neurological assessments and training programs to assess them. That’s what we all really want,” she told HealthDay.

Such methods could be used across a variety of professions from bus drivers to surgeons, Taylor suggested.

According to the news report, the Taylor study findings included:

  • at the beginning of the study, the older pilots (aged 60-69) performed consistently worse overall compared to the younger pilots (aged 40-49).
  • the more highly skilled pilots performed better in the simulator than did less-skilled pilots. “Pilots who went on to get the more advanced flight ratings perform better overall, regardless of age,” Taylor said.
  • The older pilots start lower [in the simulator test scores], but do better from year to year than the youngest pilots.

Though older pilots are not likely to surpass younger pilots in testing, “the older pilots are closing the age gap in their performance from year to year. It’s like they’re learning something from year to year about this task,” Taylor told HealthDay.

According to the report, key to this effect was the older pilots’ performance in the traffic-avoidance test that gauges how well test subjects avoid oncoming planes. Taylor suggested this could be a reflection of the deep well of experience older pilots can tap into.

One expert backed Taylor’s call for a move to competence-based pilot retirement system. “Don’t draw a line in the sand about age, just test competency,” Dr. Joseph Sirven, an associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Phoenix, told HealthDay. “If you can do it, and you’re reasonably healthy and you can complete the job, that’s the key.”

The study was released about a month after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a policy about-face – that the new mandatory retirement age for pilots would be raised from 60 to 65 (See FAA Chief Releases Pilot Retirement Change Proposal ). The International Civil Aviation Organization made the move last year.

The study article can be purchased here .