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Older pilots keep their wings

OTTAWA — Seconds away from smashing into the back end of another plane, Jon Wade frantically fumbles with buttons and switches from within the cockpit of a Cessna 172.


Jon Wade flies a plane simulator. There are green  fields on the screen.
Jon Wade flies over Saskatchewan in a flight simulator at Carleton's ACE lab.

“This isn't going to be good,” mumbles the young pilot.

The plane plummets towards a tiny strip of runway, only inches away from the rudder of the other aircraft.

Wade pushes his hands away from the controls and shakes his head.

The plane crashes and swerves off the runway.

Thankfully, this is only a simulation.

But for researchers at Carleton University, these types of simulations are not just for entertainment; they are used to help keep pilots safe.

Currently, psychologists from Carleton’s Advanced Cognitive Engineering Laboratory, or ACE Lab, are working on a study that will help to determine the effects of aging on the cognitive abilities of pilots.

Matt Brown, a psychologist involved in the research, says this type of study is important because there are no formal tests in Canada to measure a pilot’s cognitive abilities.

“This is a fairly important issue because right now the only screening in place for pilots is medical. Basically, there is only screening for physical capabilities of the body. There is no screening for mental capabilities,” says Brown.

Although the research has just started, preliminary testing on desktop computers has shown that older pilot’s cognitive abilities are somewhat lacking, says software engineer, Jon Wade.

“Older pilots were much slower to respond to increased workloads,” says Wade.

According to Brown, as pilots age, their ability to respond to multiple tasks decreases. An older pilot may be fine flying in clear skies and good conditions, but if they are flying in a storm or handling equipment failures, their responses tend to be slower than younger pilots, he says.

This does not come as a surprise to flying instructor Simon Garrett. Garrett has been flying for 37 years and began working at the Rockcliffe Flying Club in Ottawa 11 years ago.

Over time, Garrett says he has observed changes in the flying habits of many of his regulars.

“I noticed that as these pilots got older, and even just the older pilots coming to the club, many had delayed reaction times.”

Making safer pilots

Anne Barr, a simulation specialist at Carleton and a general aviation, non-commercial, pilot says Transport Canada, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association and the Air Transport Association of Canada have also expressed interest in this research.

This is an image of a private aircraft. It sits in the runway at the Rockcliffe Flying club on a sunny day
One of the Rockcliffe Flying Club's fleet: a Cessna 172N. This type of plane is popular among recreational pilots.

“The general aviation community is very safety conscious and self-aware,” she says. “We are trying to inform the flying community about where problems occur and how to spot early warning signs.”

Although they are interested in helping the flying community identify unsafe flyers, the lab is not trying to ground aging pilots, says Brown.

“We want to help them identify their areas of difficulty and then show them ways they can improve.”

Garrett says he feels the same way.

“For pilots who are passionate about flying, it is their life, and we don’t want to take their lives away.”

But not all pilots are interested in flying past their prime.

Retired Air Canada pilot, Jim Strang, 69, says he never felt like he was forced to stop flying because of age.

“I probably could have kept flying if I had wanted to, but at that point I was tired and ready to call it quits.”

Our aging brains

Psychology professor, Sylvain prGagnon, says it is typical for the physical health of pilots and drivers to decline before their mental health.

“Driving and flying are not just about cognition because there are also biomechanical processes involved,” he says.

Gagnon’s research at the University of Ottawa focuses on the neuropsychology of aging.

Although Gagnon says he acknowledges a direct link between aging and the decline of mental abilities, he asserts that this does not always translate into better performances from younger pilots and drivers.

“Older drivers know they may have a slower reaction time, so they will keep a further distance between cars so they have more time to react,” he says.

Strang warns that not all older pilots are better flyers.

“Although we all say we could have kept going at age 60, I think all of us will know at least one or two individuals who should have retired much earlier because of deteriorating cognitive abilities,” he says.

Those involved in Carleton’s aging pilot study are well aware of these individuals.

But Brown says he hopes this research will help create a validated screening process that can identify these pilots who are not meeting the minimum cognitive standards.

“Often small private aircrafts go down without any evidence of mechanical failure and these accidents seem to happen more commonly these days,” he says. “We just want everyone to be safe.”

Related Links

ACE Lab at Carleton University

Rockcliffe Flying Club

Transport Canada Flight Regulations



Youth versus experience

A team at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. found interesting results in a 2007 study.

Using flight simulators, the team tested 118 general aviation pilots between the ages of 40 and 69 over a three year period. The tests measured the pilot’s abilities performing flight tasks such as communication, traffic avoidance and scanning cockpit instruments.

The results published showed that even though older pilots performed worse in the beginning over time their flying scores declined less than the younger pilots.



Does age really matter?


Air Canada requires pilots to retire at the age of 60 regardless of their flying abilities. More than 50 pilots have taken the issue to Canadian Human Rights Tribunals but there have been no changes made to the retirement age yet.

United States

In 2007, former US president George Bush signed a law increasing airline pilot’s mandatory retirement age to 65 from 60.


The French Senate approved a measure to raise the commercial pilot retirement age to 65 from 60 in 2008.


In 2006, British Airways announces they are increasing retirement age for pilots to 60 from 55 and eventually to 65.

Source: National statistic services



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