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.
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.