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How young is too young? Issues of age and experience

 

On Feb. 12, 2009, a Bombardier Dash 8-Q400 crashed in the U.S. Although the accident investigation is ongoing, the relative youth of the pilots has been tossed around in the press as a possible contributing factor.

As a result various people have raised red flags with concern for what they think must surely have been a lack of experience. The question then becomes one of how much experience is needed to safely pilot an aircraft; especially for an airliner.

The captain in the above crash was reported by the NTSB to have 3,379 hours total time, but only 110 hours in type. The co-pilot had 2,244 hours total, and 774 hours in type. Is this enough experience to safely pilot the aircraft in question?

If under normal circumstances the answer is yes, then under what circumstances is it not enough? And are they similar to the circumstances that lead to this crash?

All valid questions, so this month I’ll focus on the generic issues of pilot age, its relation to experience, and piloting safety.

When the issue of age and safe piloting come up many pilots think of the “age-60 rule” (at least if you’re in the U.S.).  As a refresher, the age-60 rule, a 1960 amendment to the regulations in the U.S., stated that “no individual who has reached his 60th birthday shall be utilized or serve as a pilot or copilot on any aircraft while engaged in air carrier operations.”  Essentially, age 60 became the mandatory, although somewhat arbitrary retirement age for airline pilots who wanted to exercise left seat or ATP privileges. Although the age-60 rule was never medically warranted, it did have an impressive safety record supporting its continued use. Over the last 40 years several organizations reviewed the age-60 rule. None produced convincing evidence that the rule should be changed, perhaps partly due to the inability to come up with a reasonably sound way of proving the physiological well-being of pilots past the age of 60.

In terms of safety, much research has looked at medical issues as being a primary factor of concern for aging pilots, but none of the research has shown a clear pattern when considering age by itself. Part of the problem here is that experience is well known to mitigate some of the expected age related declines in motor skill and mental performance.

In a nut-shell, while an older pilot may not perform quite as precise as a younger pilot, they may be better at solving problems and using correlative knowledge to resolve abnormal flight situations. Experience is what allows them to do that.

On the other hand, if you take a 60 year old pilot who started flying at age 55, you have the worst case scenario; low experience combined with the possible onset of age related declines in performance. So when considering age effect on safety, the only correct way to look at the problem is to account for experience in some way. That’s a tricky proposition however!

Experience is not a binary thing (e.g. you either have it or you don’t). Rather, it’s a multifaceted factor that is determined not only by years of activity, but also total flight time, type of aircraft flown, recent experience, and type of flight mission experience.

In 1994 the FAA issued a 4-part document readdressing the age-60 issue. The bottom line in this extension review was that there “was no hint of an increase in accident rate for pilots of schedule air carriers as they neared their 60th birthday.” 

In general, their analysis failed to show support for the hypothesis that as pilots neared age 60 their accident rate would increase. In fact, all the data showed a slight downward trend indicating that the older pilots were indeed safer (less likely to be involved in an accident) than their younger counterparts.

A conclusion that must be taken carefully since there are several confounding factors that, if properly taken into account, may washout any apparent benefit for age-related safety benefits. Regardless of the FAA’s results, the age-60 rule remained in place until just a few years ago!

Younger pilot safety is an entirely different issue. The same FAA study relating accident rates to age showed that the younger (30’s) pilots had noticeably higher accident rates. Why is this so? On first glance, most of us are quick to suspect a lack of experience, but there is more to this than meets the eye.

What has become clear in recent years of research and review of age related accidents is that there are marked differences in the types of aircraft and operations that the younger air carrier (commuter) pilots engage in and that of the more senior pilots.

Smaller aircraft and potentially longer exposure to bad weather at the lower altitudes increase the risk of having an accident. However, in recent years a lot of those smaller turboprop aircraft that where once the stepping stone from light piston twins to the larger jets have given way to “regional jets.” Now many of our younger pilots are moving from light twins directly into regional jets; jets that, apart from size, are little different from their larger counterparts with the major airlines.

Is this a problem? The accident record doesn’t seem to show a trend one way or the other yet, so perhaps we need another decade to be sure.

In general, studies of age-related risk have historically suffered from problems of methods and failures of proper analytical procedure. The result is that some studies show a clear decline in accident risk with age while others show a clear increase in risk with age. Some show no change in risk with a change in age!

Even when the proper factors are taken into account, and correctly analyzed, the results can be less than crystal clear. In a recent analysis of weather related accidents, the NTSB determined that there was a significant difference between accident and non-accident pilots with respect to age. However, these two groups were not different when considering years of piloting or considering total flight time (both being experience factors).

What is interesting is the finding that pilots who started their flying careers later in life were more likely to fall into the accident group than those who earned their certificates or licenses at an earlier age. The reasons for this finding are speculative but not necessarily hard to believe.

Pilots who learn to fly earlier in life generally benefit from better motor-skill response and quicker mental or cognitive responses. One can imagine that as a situation crops up, the younger pilot is able to respond to the situation more quickly than an older pilot with the same number of years of experience.

As the NTSB has pointed out, “..the changes in cognitive and physical functioning that occur with aging are well documented.” It is well known that significant performance losses due to visual acuity and decreased mobility begin on average around age 60, but this is not a magic age where deterioration begins all of a sudden.

Clearly, the process of physiological decline starts earlier in life but doesn’t usually present an unmanageable situation for most people until their 60’s or later.

The final conclusion, according to the NTSB study, is that pilots who begin flying at 25 or younger have a significantly lower risk of having a weather-related general aviation accident.

As previously stated, one of the conclusions of the NTSB study was that the connection between age and weather-related accident risk was not likely due to physical age, but more so to the age at which a person starts their flight training. But how do these results relate to other types of accidents?

Other types of human error related accidents may indeed show different results. One area of interest with the Dash-8 crash was the checkride failures the captain had during prior training. While the number is disturbingly high, without knowing what the failures were for, I can’t pass judgment. And since the number of checkride failures is not an age related issue, its discussion is not germane to this article.

So if age does play a part in the accident risk assessment, as it appears to with weather-related accidents, its not entirely clear what combination of age, experience, total time, gender, etc. that combine in the right way to reduce that risk.

That said, at least one recent study has convincingly shown that pilots, with adjustment for age, having 5,000-10,000 total hours have a 57 per cent lower risk of a crash than less experienced pilots. They note, “…the protective effect of flight experience leveled off after total time reached 10,000 hours.

So what is clear? From my experience spanning over 25 years of flying, pilots going to their first commercial job have far less operational experience than is necessary to handle many serious flight situations that might come up. This problem (if it really exists) would seem to be mitigated by proper crew pairing; i.e. pairing experience with the inexperienced.

The range of conditions in which air carriers fly far exceeds that which the vast majority of pilots have trained in, and to the extent that they remain in the training environment as flight instructor right up until they get their first air carrier job, they may have little or no practical weather experience.

That’s not speculation on my part, but actual observation. There are pilots being hired for their first airline job who have never flown in icing conditions (note that I’m not promoting that they should do that without the proper training and equipment however).

While there appears to be no absolute certainties when considering the age issue, what is at least clear to me is that proper training, supervision, and procedural factors are necessary for any complex aviation operation.

Age by itself will never be the sole factor in determining the safety of an operation. There will always be young pilots who can out-perform older ones, and vice versa.

Arguably, the most complex aviation environment, and perhaps the most potentially dangerous is run by “kids” in their late teens and early 20’s; supervised by those not a whole lot older. If you guessed aircraft carrier flight deck, you’d be right.

And the pilots flying those fighter jets onto the deck are no more seasoned in terms of average flight time than those “young” air carrier pilots. A lot comes together in just the right way to make that environment work as amazingly well as it does.

The lesson learned here is that civilian aviation, although operating in an entirely different operational tempo, has the potential to run just as well regardless of the age of who is behind the wheel!

This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 180 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.