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Old Folks Flying

By Dr. Kenneth Nolde, EAA 604884 for Light Plane World

Pam LanceDr. Ken (Too Many Gummy Bears) Nolde, Major (USAF-Ret.)

As I was thinking about writing an article concerning "old guys (and ladies)" still flying, particularly those with, or those thinking about, light-sport aircraft, unfortunately an accident occurred in which four people died, including two college coaches and the 80-year-old pilot; Richard Collins (of Flying magazine) decided to stop flying; and a number of rather negative articles appeared in the media questioning the efficacy of an elderly pilot flying with passengers.

I was surprised at the number of pilots, instructors, and others who acknowledged the "problem" and noted they don't fly alone with nonpilots or with their grandchildren. A distracting atmosphere notwithstanding, this article is not a response to recent events or comments. It is as planned: my personal thoughts about flying. For the record, I still fly with my nonpilot wife Nancy, grandchildren, friends, my son-in-law, and pilots (including instructors) who have never flown an LSA. I accomplish this with a valid driver's license and satisfaction with my physical capability to operate our antigravity machine well.

FAA, LSA, and Medical Certification

Today, at age 74, I enjoy good health and still fly our CTLS regularly under LSA rules; I let my medical lapse in 2008. Nancy and I have flown together since getting our first aircraft, a 1967 Piper Cherokee 140 in 1995, after my medical recertification after an aortic heart valve replacement. However, in 2006 FAA unexpectedly lifted my certificate. I did, after a particularly nasty and expensive argument with FAA, get my medical in 2007. My takeaway from this experience is that if you suspect you may have a problem passing your medical, discuss it fully with your doctor, not an FAA medical examiner (ME). I urge this because interim data, correct or not, that could affect your certificate eligibility will be transmitted to FAA by the ME, and FAA can/will act whether or not you plan on it.

Here, I most certainly am not saying or implying you should withhold relevant data from FAA if you are applying for a medical certificate; that is a crime. What I am pointing out is that you do not have the same confidentiality in discussing your condition with an ME as you do with your personal physician. Letting your medical lapse rather than losing it which preserves your option to continue flying in the future under LSA rules or reacquisition of your medical—that is the issue and it is a serious issue. FAA mandates that medical requirements to continue flying as an LSA pilot are based on you not having a revoked/suspended FAA medical certificate and that you possess a current valid driver's license. Bottom line is that if you have a revoked or suspended medical and let it lapse without action, you are grounded, permanently. On the other hand, if you have a current FAA medical certificate, do not reapply for a renewal, and simply let it lapse without action, you can, with a valid driver's license, still fly under LSA rules.

For example, when I reacquired my FAA medical certificate, I was confident that I would pass my next medical, but my experience left me with a "but what if" question. So I opted to let my certificate lapse, and I notified FAA of my intent in writing prior to the expiration date. My certificate expired in June 2008, and Nancy and I took our Flight Design CTLS home in August. Additionally, to discuss the consequences of medical problems and the FAA, I strongly urge you to contact EAA or AOPA medical services for help. If it were not for AOPA's invaluable assistance, I likely would not have gotten my certificate renewed!

Health Issues

Health is a major concern as we age; you know how a malady like a cold seems to last longer than when you were young. For me, I am most concerned with heart health, because my aortic valve has been replaced twice, and I must plan on another such operation in the future. I used to smoke, but quit more than 20 years ago. But that should be a first thing for a pilot of any age — quit! Also, one should pay attention to family history, such as problems like diabetes and certain cancers for example. If there is such a condition, it should be a warning flag to be tested periodically. Here, excess weight is linked to many serious problems and watching one's diet, weight, and not getting sufficient exercise. Okay, I admit to having an addiction to my wife's oatmeal cookies, but I weigh the same as when I left high school.

Speaking about weight, excess poundage increases one's risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. According to my cardiologist and other health professionals, staying very close to one's optimum weight ranks with quitting smoking as a means of improving your health and physical outlook as you age. Additionally, it is quite important to keep tabs on your blood pressure; high pressure is directly linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Another consideration about weight, particularly in an LSA, that extra weight can affect weight and balance, but more importantly it reduces the amount of baggage and possible fuel you can carry.

The older I get, the more I seem to have odd aches and pains. Clichés like "Don't stay in one position too long," "My butt hurts if I sit in one spot too long," "Getting in and out of the airplane is a flexibility issue," etc. now have real meaning. So, after Nancy, who does yoga and Pilates, made fun of me for the umpteenth time, I now do stretching exercises to include muscle tension (a variation of the very old Charles Atlas dynamic tension exercises), and it works well for me. Additionally, I also walk Luci, our "attack" basset hound, and play disc (frisbee) golf as an exercise of choice. Thus with a modest effort I have stayed the same weight and lessened the aches and pains considerably with no drugs. I mention aches and pains as a cautionary note because many people turn to pain killers, particularly prescription types, many of which impair motor skills. Don't forget that you can say no to prescription pain killers and use OTC types carefully as directed.

Next and at the risk of appearing quite dull, I offer a few words about drinking. Because of past heart surgery, I must take some blood thinner; so while I could indulge a bit, I choose not to use alcohol — no health benefits from a regular tot for me. As we age, excessive alcohol use is, or can be, detrimental to good health. I simply cite a succession of cardiologists who have cautioned about too much alcohol intake because it can have long-lasting effects on coordination, endurance, and mental acuity, all of which affect the older pilot more than the younger.

Mental acuity is a real concern as we age. I hesitate to give any advice, but I do read a lot, work crossword puzzles, and am in the process of learning a foreign language. I feel I am ready to fly mentally, and as the physical is good, I do fly. This is the crux of answering the question, can you fly and get old at the same time? My answer is clearly yes, and I do work at it. Moreover, Nancy grades my landings, and my daughter, a trained graduate therapist, is not the least bit reticent to be critical—yes, she watches out for me. I make the decision concerning flying, and I respect my responsibility in this matter. The bottom line here is that I am paying attention to medical advice given by Harvard, Mayo Clinic, and other such health institutions, concerning keeping your mind sharp as you age. I guess I am saying, “Use it! Or lose it!” Oh yes, the occasional “senior moment” is nothing to worry about, as long as you note the operative word is occasional.

Overall, I do not think I am telling you or advocating anything radical or that which you may not have heard before. Rather it is what Nancy and I are doing to keep mind and body in good shape, by working at it. I don't claim any great number of hours flown every year, but we work at being in shape to enjoy the trips we take. For example, our typical cross-country trip is in excess of 1,000 NM round-trip, takes a week, and we seem to handle it without a problem. And that really enhances the enjoyment of the trip.

The Flying

I found that my flying got a real boost when we acquired a new plane, the CTLS which is sufficiently different from our old Cherokee that I had to readjust my thinking and procedures. In addition, I continue a practice of many years—flying frequent "pilot proficiency" flights to ensure my skills remain honed. I fly two types of proficiency flights, one is simply getting into the pattern and practice landings on hard-surfaced and grass runways. The other is going elsewhere to do some practice ILS and VOR instrument approaches. We really enjoy going cross-country, and when we do, we want to be ready. The bottom line for the older pilot is much the same as a younger one—practice, enjoying a flight and looking forward to the next time. Should the old duffers fly? As far as I am concerned the answer is yes. Take care of yourself, and like an old airplane with good maintenance, you'll stay airworthy for a long time.

Points to Ponder

  1. Use checklists! Consider a "to take" list, and include medicines you are taking!
  2. Regular exercise is absolutely necessary, no compromise! The physical and mental things we do require due diligence, meaning do it because the results are good! Don't forget excess weight has consequences not only for your health, but can affect the weight and balance, baggage, and fuel capacity.
  3. A hangar helps the older pilot by reducing aircraft cleaning work, allowing easy access, and increasing security.
  4. If you are having sitting/butt pains, we have used Oregon Aero seat cushions for years. They work!
  5. Endurance can be a problem, so we try to limit legs to around 3 to 3-1/2 hours. On a really long cross-country, shorter legs may require an extra day to get to the destination, but you will be fresher. I find the "Little John" or "piddle packs" from Sporty's can ease the trip. (See my 2010 article linked below.)
  6. Also, if you have an autopilot, use it, particularly on longer legs; it really reduces fatigue and enhances the enjoyment of sightseeing.
  7. Remember, GA or LSA, you are responsible for determining if you are physically ready to fly! This is particularly important when considering prescription medications and their possible effects.

Read Ken's October 2010 article "Cross-Country Light-Sport Flying" and the May 2011 article "Living With a Flight Design CTLS" published in Light Plane World.

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