The Middle-aged Aviator

 By Rod Machado

Over the years, I’ve heard many stories about middle-aged pilots (45-65 years) who gave up flying due to a sudden onset of anxiety. Apparently this wasn’t induced by any specific aviation trauma nor inspired by the relatively small and perfectly normal decline of reflexes and mental agility experienced by most middle aged pilots. What in the world might spook a 50-ish pilot into abandoning something he obviously once loved to do?

First, let me make it clear that there are probably as many answers to this question as there are belly button rings at a Madonna concert. I’d suggest that the most likely cause has something to do with the emotional baggage a pilot accumulates with age. I’m speaking of baggage caused by the unhealthy focus on a pilot’s own mortality, which may result from obsessing over aviation accident data (no doubt there are many other causes, as well). Fortunately, he’s not forced to pay an additional $25 per emotional bag checked during his travels toward middle age, or he’d go broke. The price he actually pays involves worrying about the many possible ways an airplane could smite him.

By the time a pilot reaches the age of 50, he’s been around long enough to hear or read about several of the ordinary and imaginative ways aviators have employed to vaporize themselves in an airplane. For convenience, let’s call this information the dark side of aviation. Long term exposure to the dark side often assaults the mind, lays siege to the emotions and spooks an otherwise mentally healthy pilot. Whatever desire someone has for living a long, healthy life now collides with the memories of those unfortunate pilots who didn’t have one.

SECRETS OF INSTRUMENT APPROACHES AND DEPARTURES

While clock time is still technically on the middle aged pilot’s side, he no longer feels this advantage. Instead, flying becomes a game of chance, rather than the practical management of risk that it is. At this point, some pilots begin to slowly reevaluate—perhaps over a period of years—their desire to flying. For others, it’s as if they wake up one day and out of the blue decide they no longer want to soar into it. The net result is an exit strategy that resembles how an engineer behaves when he accidentally stumbles into a coffee shop hosting a poetry reading. It may look voluntary, but it's essentially coerced by anxiety.

If a pilot surrenders to these emotions, he’s essentially letting the deceased determine how he lives. Inasmuch as the NTSB conservatively estimates that 75% of accidents are due to pilot error, we know that fate didn’t hunt at least three-quarters of the pilots involved in aviation’s dark side events (the percentage of pilot-error-type-accidents is really much, much higher). The suggestion here is that these unfortunate pilots made a choice, and they chose wrong.

So what’s an older pilot to do when his mortality-induced anxiety compels him to question his desire to fly? I’d argue that a good answer is as simple as deciding to have a little more faith in himself, and his ability to choose wisely in the air.

There’s a very good basis for such faith, too. Living to middle age has to count for something in terms of the wisdom a pilot accumulates. Unlike King Lear in Shakespeare's famous play, few people grow old without growing wise. Surely Bob 5.0 is nothing like Bob 2.0. The later version of Bob better understands his/her strengths and weaknesses, as well as how human nature affects his behavior. This is the knowledge that makes us wise, is it not? 

For example, an awareness of human nature may make Bob aware of his desire please his passengers, at the cost of aviation safety (wanting to please others to sustain group cohesion is fundamental to human nature). Wise man that he is, Bob 5.0 now elects to protect himself by obtaining his passengers’ agreement to cancel the flight and reschedule for another day if the weather is poor. 

From a flight safety perspective, knowledge of self (wisdom) is worth a hundred times more than what a pilot may know about how airplanes fly (flight experience). Said another way, age-related wisdom can help us avoid situations where we might have to use our superior skill. And that wisdom helps us avoid situations that require superior skill we might not have. 


Based on understanding how wisdom confers a cockpit advantage, the middle aged pilot with mortality-induced anxiety should find comfort in knowing that he’s probably a much safer pilot than he (or she) gives himself credit for. As a result, he should learn to trust himself and his ability to fly safely as a means of combating his anxiety. Is the answer really as simple as that? Consider that, from a cognitive perspective, learning to trust oneself is as solid a therapeutic concept as are the drugs used to treat physical illness. So, the answer can be that simple.

To be clear here, I’m not suggesting that wisdom always trumps the age related decreases in a pilot’s physical/cognitive performance. In fact, some middle age pilots are anxious because they know they’re less skilled than they once were. Wise pilots that they are, they'll most likely opt to fly within the range of their performance limits. Perhaps they'll sell that twin Cessna and opt for a Cessna 182 instead. In this article, I'm speaking only of how a capable middle aged pilot might overcome his mortality-induced anxiety by simply placing more faith in himself and his abilities.

If you’re one of these middle aged pilots suffering from the anxiety induced by aviation’s dark side, then isn’t it better to just learn the lessons offered by fallen aviators, instead of bringing the deceased with you on every flight? Let them rest in peace so you may find greater peace in flight.

 

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Comments

  • Myriam - March 19, 2019

    Hello, I’m not sure my previous comment was taken into account as I didn’t log in so please forgive me if my comment appears twice. I wanted to say that many pilots give up flying and tend to let their airplane in the hangar when they are in their fifties or above as they simply don’t like to fly alone. I am not a pilot but I enjoy flying as a passenger in small airplanes (Cessna, Mooney, Ercoupe, I even did rolls in a RV5 which was much fun). I wish I could find a pilot in my age rank with an empty seat and who would like to share his passion from time to time with a lively and light woman aged 57. I also plan to go to Rochester airshow in August but alone it’s not fun either. Please pass my comment to pilots who might be interested. You could even display it in small airports around Boston/NYC :) You, pilots, have a wonderful passion or job, so don’t hesitate to share it!

  • Myriam - March 19, 2019

    Hello, sometimes it’s just because a pilot flies alone that he tends to let the airplane in the hangar. I am not a pilot myself but I’d like so much to find an empty seat! I enjoy flying in small airplanes as a passenger. I even did rolls in a RV5, it’s so much fun. I’m 57. If you know a pilot in my age rank who would enjoy sharing his passion with a lively and light woman, let him know about my comment. And I also wish I can find a pilot to go with or to fly with to Rochester airshow in August. Alone it’s less fun. You have a nice passion or job so don’t hesitate to share it, safely of course. :)

  • Ray bloch - February 01, 2019

    Great article! Just thought I would let you know that at the age of 83 I have decided to think of my age as 80.0.3. With 52 years at the yoke and 6000 hours logged I find that I have not developed the anxiety syndrome you speak of. The only reason I can think of is that I have the policy that if it doesn’t look good don’t go. No flight is worth risking a chance of danger to others or to myself. Thank you for all you do.

  • Marquita - January 18, 2019

    I am so grateful I came across this article! I am 59 and an Embry-Riddle graduate circa 1982. I stopped flying for about 25 years after I married and had children. A few years ago, I started to fly again and am currently working toward ASEL (back in the day, we only got our AMEL rating at Riddle). I definitely struggle with anxiety; all because of my thinking. What might happen in flight?? Why wasn’t my landing better? Why can’t I remember anything I study?? How do I talk to tower and ATC?? haha
    Like you suggested, I am starting to have faith and just remain in the present moment. Do my best and take my time. After all, I am not a spring chicken looking to fly for the airlines. I enjoy flying and working toward a new rating keeps my brain " stretching". Thank you for your insightful writing.

  • John Vybiral - December 08, 2018

    Typical Rod Machado… profoundly thoughtful and well composed writing, with a refreshing dose of clean humor to make it even better. Having listened to Rod’s audio presentations, watched his videos and read his books for well over a decade, Rod (probably unknowingly) proves his own point in this article… he’s getting even better as he gets older!

  • Randy van Vliet - December 01, 2018

    I just turned 60 a couple of weeks ago…. Am I too old to learn how to get a Sport Pilots license and fly and land a trike setup like a KitFox on paved runways, with a 6 pack of gauges? Every instructor near where I live, KVNY or KWHP has nothing that’s LSA rated, and most of the places running LSA rentals have all glass cockpits, and sky high wet rates. Can afford to buy my own Experimental. Thoughts?

  • Walter - December 01, 2018

    Finally! Thanks Rod for approaching a subject that so many want to avoid or don’t understand. I started to learn how to fly at 50 and without realizing it, probably the worst time in my life to do this. I had kids in college, work transition, aging parents, etc.. I also realized that I was much more cautious then I would have been at a much younger age. I think my biggest challenge was having two flight instructors that were half my age and had no understanding on how to modulate the approach and lessons to an older student. They both acted like they never made mistakes making me feel like it was all me and not just the process of learning to fly. This created so much stress that I blamed myself and it made the whole learning process so much more difficult after that.
    Thank goodness I found an airline pilot in his mid thirties with a calm and patient approach. I owe him much credit to accomplishing a dream. I think having a good flight instructor in your age range can really help ease the anxiety if you are just learning or are an experience middle age pilot. They are more likely to understand the challenges of getting older and probably more apt to be honest about not being perfect and sharing their own mistakes.
    Thank you for brining this subject to light.

  • Mike McGee - October 20, 2018

    WOW ….That hit the bullseye!
    My anxiety stems from knowing 3 pilots in a fly in community that had fatal accidents (all unfortunately from poor decision making) but also a unrational fear of flying in bumps/turbulence and not liking flying alone after 20 years.

    Any suggestions would be much appreciated!

  • Ellen - October 20, 2018

    This essay is not only wise in itself, it’s brilliant at identifying the psychological shadows that accompany aging. Rod makes a strong case for maintaining one’s self-confidence as an experienced pilot at middle (and older) age, while also making realistic accommodations to the aging process.

  • Ellen - October 20, 2018

    This essay is not only wise in itself, it’s brilliant at identifying the psychological shadows that accompany aging. Rod makes a strong case for maintaining one’s self-confidence as an experienced pilot at middle (and older) age, while also making realistic accommodations to the aging process.

  • Tom McDowell - October 20, 2018

    Hello Ron. I just stumbled on your site. You are the first person who has addressed ‘Senior Aviators’ . I am one of those. Soon to be turning 70, dear Lord, what a thought, I decided that it is time to raise my bar and get my Private Certificate. I’ve been a Sport Pilot since it’s it inception. As I run my EAA Chapter meetings and look at a young member (17) who just got his private, I question myself as to why can’t I ? I’ve been taking lessons in a Cessna 172 for seems like countless hours. Thank you, -Tom , President, EAA-216.

  • GERALD CAMERON - October 20, 2018

    I am 77 years old.
    Looking for Rod Machado training related to my age.
    I understand he is or is scheduled to lead a training seminar in the Los Angeles area.
    I am interested in any of Rods Seminars.
    Gerald Cameron
    “gerrydelmar@gmail.com”

    Thanks for the Help

  • Walt K. - October 20, 2018

    Hi Rod,
    Always enjoy your witty comments. Having turned 69, and in excellent health, and still working, I ask myself what would I rather do: retire? No thanks, play golf? No, whacking a small ball with a modified club is not fun, to me. Play shuffleboard? UGH, just the thought would make me depressed. Work as a Wal-Mart “greeter?” Yikes, gag me with a spoon. So instead of a late in life freak-out, I think about my next flight, brush up on weather science, the theory of aerodynamics, and how Einstein’s mass-energy-equivalence formula allows the J3 Cub I fly to “hover” into a headwind, while cars below are passing at a good clip.
    Science rules, all else is just idle day dreaming.
    Br,
    W.K.

  • Walt K. - October 20, 2018

    Hi Rod,
    Always enjoy your witty comments. Having turned 69, and in excellent health, and still working, I ask myself what would I rather do: retire? No thanks, play golf? No, whacking a small ball with a modified club is not fun, to me. Play shuffleboard? UGH, just the thought would make me depressed. Work as a Wal-Mart “greeter?” Yikes, gag me with a spoon. So instead of a late in life freak-out, I think about my next flight, brush up on weather science, the theory of aerodynamics, and how Einstein’s mass-energy-equivalence formula allows the J3 Cub I fly to “hover” into a headwind, while cars below are passing at a good clip.
    Science rules, all else is just idle day dreaming.
    Br,
    W.K.

  • Scott Cole - October 20, 2018

    Rod, some interesting points. The anxiety I sometimes feel—generally if I don’t get into the air enough—has less to do with my skills than with what I perceive are things beyond my control: engine or other equipment failure, the onset of high winds or gusty crosswinds or mountain turbulence, and the mistakes of other pilots at uncontrolled airports. I started at age 50 and now at age 54, perhaps due to a career as a classical musician, I trust my reflexes and physical skills.

  • Smitty - October 20, 2018

    Great article Rod! Just what I needed today!

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