Does age affect a pilot’s ability to fly?
That question was asked of scientists at several clinical research centers in California. Their answer, after three years of study, was reported in the Feb. 27 issue of Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Their findings showed that older pilots performed better than younger pilots on flight simulator tests. They concluded that expert knowledge may offset the impact of old age.
For their study, the researchers tested 118 GA pilots, whose ages ranged from 40 to 69, annually for three years. All the pilots were current, had logged from 300 to 15,000 hours of total flight time, and had valid FAA medical certificates, the report said.
They were tested on accuracy of executing communications, traffic avoidance, scanning of instruments to detect emergencies, and executing visual approaches and landings.
The study found that, while older pilots initially performed worse than their younger colleagues, the older pilots not only showed less decline in overall scores than younger pilots, but over time their performance actually improved more than those of younger pilots.
The study also found that pilots with advanced FAA ratings and certifications showed less performance decline over time, regardless of age.
“These findings show the advantageous effect of prior experience and specialized expertise on older adults’ skilled cognitive performances,” wrote study author Joy L. Taylor, Ph.D., of the Stanford/VA Aging Clinical Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif.
Few older pilots would disagree.
“Our discovery has broader implications beyond aviation to the general issue of aging in the workplace and the objective assessment of competency in older workers,” she stated.
The research suggests that pilots with advanced ratings may maintain proficiency due to “a mechanism of preserved task-specific knowledge, known as crystallized intelligence, which is similar to what is seen in music or expert chess playing,” the report said.
The study was supported by the Sierra-Pacific Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center, the Medical Research Service of the Department of Veteran Affairs, and the National Institute on Aging.