Tutorial: Soaring Pilots and Aging

There is no question but that certain of the physiological changes we lump under the heading of “Aging” are detrimental to the piloting task. The gradual degradation of visual acuity and the longer time taken to refocus (“accommodation”) are two such well-known effects. Slower reflexes (or, more accurately, longer response times) and memory faults are also widely appreciated as being part of aging.

The issue is to a certain extent more significant in soaring than in other sectors of recreational aviation for two reasons: one is the fact that glider pilots are exempted from the obligation to maintain an FAA medical certificate, and the other is the fact that soaring has proven to be a sufficiently fascinating and challenging sport that for many of our pilots it becomes a passion that lasts a lifetime.

While vision- and response- and memory-related effects get a lot of the attention, there are other, more subtle effects of aging that aren’t addressed as frequently as they should be. For the soaring pilot, perhaps the most important is the declining ability to recognize, accept, and react to unexpected information reaching the cockpit.

This matters quite a lot, because soaring, and cross-country soaring in particular, demands many more decisions per flight hour than virtually any other form of flying as an avocation.

Soaring stands head-and-shoulders above virtually all other forms of recreational aviation in its heavy demands upon the pilot to actively seek out, acquire, process and act upon information that presents itself only in the form of subtle clues: cloud shadows, drifting smoke, soaring birds, sun angles and all the rest of the hints that make soaring such a fascinating and satisfying sport.

Unfortunately, the ability to recognize these clues seems to be one of the things most readily lost as a sailplane pilot ages.

Another aspect of aging is the gradual degradation of the ability to absorb new information or to change habits of long standing. For the soaring pilot, this typically manifests itself when a familiar sailplane is exchanged for a new ship. This often occurs, ironically, as part of a well-meant effort to cope with the effects of aging—as when a sailplane is replaced with one that is easier to rig, easier to fly or perhaps even easier to enter or exit.

Finally, aging means that the effort to retain hard-won skills must be increased, and in particular, that the seasonal nature of soaring in many locales is especially hard on older pilots.

How do you counter the effects of aging on your ability to perform as a soaring pilot? Here are some suggestions, all of them based on decades of working with older pilots (including ourselves):

1)     Don’t try to operate with impaired vision. If you need glasses or contacts, use them!

2)     Accept your slower reactions. Don’t gaggle as tightly with other gliders, and be more generous with your separation on the ridge. Allow more space for landings, too.

3)     Don’t be tempted to rely on memory when it isn’t necessary to do so. Double-check elevations on the sectional charts, use your checklists (for assembly, flying, preparing the trailer for retrieves, de-rigging) religiously. Remember that while a gear-up landing might not seem to you to be a big deal, it’s really a veiled hint that you probably start your takeoffs without really being prepared for flight. This endangers your towpilot!

4)   Fly as often as you possibly can.  As you age, repetition is your friend, rust is your enemy. (This is actually true at any age; it just becomes more critical later in life.)

5)     If necessary, become a true "snowbird."  In many parts of the country the weather is unflyable for months at a time.  If you live in such a climate, consider establishing a relationship with a gliding club or operation located in a climate that would allow you to fly year-round. Florida, Arizona, New Zealand—depending on your budget—might all be possibilities. Do this well before it matters; once your skills begin to degrade it will probably be too late.

6)     In a similar manner, if you think you might want to change gliders for your golden years, do this early as well.

7)     If fellow club members approach you with recommendations that you seek out additional instruction or that you accept some limitations in your soaring, accept these hints with good grace. We belong to a social species and we have an almost unbelievable ability to accept hierarchies without question—consider the public's interest in the opinions and the doings of royal familes, heads of companies and Hollywood celebrities—which means that there is considerable reluctance to confront an older “chieftain” pilot. If your fellow pilots come to you with concerns, almost certainly they do so with ample justification.  Be grateful they care enough about you to take action to protect you from yourself.