Pilots are usually thought of as young, swashbuckling types with keen eyes, razor-sharp reflexes and youthful looks. The flying public has been led over the years to assume that piloting an aircraft is a young person’s game. This belief was backed-up until recently by a mandatory retirement age of sixty years old for airline pilots.
Flight crews were called upon in the early days of aviation to be paragons of strength, youth and quickness. The aircraft they flew back then required actual physical strength to muscle around the sky.
High altitude flying without pressurization, air conditioning or heat was a physically demanding endeavor and in the early part of the twentieth century when aviation got its start, sixty years of age was past the expected lifespan of most people.
Flying is no less demanding now, but it is demanding in areas other than the need for brute strength. High-performance jets, corporate and charter aircraft of all types, from single-engine Cirrus to multi-engine piston aircraft all have an over-riding need that can’t always be fulfilled by young, bright-eyed pilots. These aircraft and their operators need deeply experienced flight crews that have the background, wisdom and experience to operate them safely.
Older pilots are now the most sought after people in the aviation business. Highly experienced airline captains, military pilots, and others who used to be considered too aged to fly are now coveted additions to many charter and corporate flight departments.
That sixty three year old captain you see flying your aircraft today has most likely logged flight experience over four decades. He or she has seen just about everything in aviation that there is to see. Your senior pilot has had dozens of seriously bad weather encounters, hundreds of minor and major mechanical problems of all types, and has dealt with the entire spectrum of aviation-related issues through his or her career.
Your fifty nine year old pilot may have only recently checked out in the aircraft you are flying with him last week, but his long military flying experience has seen him fly untold combat missions with limited resources though the worst weather the planet can offer.
Pilots trained by the United States military are the best in the world. Their operational experiences once out of training are something that can only happen in the military world of supersonic jets, long combat deployments and constant testing.
That military retiree you may be flying with today was given, at the age of about twenty three years old, command of an aircraft worth something north of a hundred million dollars and was also put in charge of the life of his or her crew. A career long commitment to safety and command led them to a well-earned retirement and to the cockpit of your aircraft today.
Why are there so many gray-haired (or no-haired) pilots still active in flying today? It is due to a combination of economics and medicine.
Almost everybody has heard of the ongoing pilot shortage in the airline world. Most airlines, including the so-called majors like Delta, American, and United, are beginning to feel the crunch that their smaller competitors have been feeling for some time. Pilots that used to be in such large supply that the airline could literally exclude all who didn’t have 20/20 vision are no longer waiting in line for a coveted airline job.
The airlines went through a tough time during the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. Bankruptcies, safety problems and labor woes drug the piloting profession down to a level where the low pay and general lack of respect prompted many airline pilots (including this one) to leave early. The same low pay and lack of respect led other potential pilots to stay in the military or pursue other, more lucrative and livable, piloting jobs.
Pay and benefits for military pilots, combined with a much longer service commitment they had to serve in exchange for becoming a pilot in the first place, led many officers to complete a full military career instead of getting out early for an airline job. Today, corporate and charter piloting positions offer flight crews the adequate money, career progression and often a better lifestyle than the major airlines.
Medical considerations have changed in the past few decades to the point that older pilots who used to be considered over the hill for professional flying are now safely continuing their careers well into their senior years.