UN­USUAL AT­TI­TUDES

AG­ING GRACE­FULLY IS AN ART

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Martha Lunken

Ag­ing grace­fully is an art

Re­cently, an iconic fig­ure in the fly­ing world cel­e­brated his 80th birth­day by solo­ing an Aeronca Champ — the very same Champ he first soloed on his 16th birth­day in 1954. How sweet is that? This ca­reer air­line pi­lot, au­thor of nu­mer­ous books, nar­ra­tor of avi­a­tion pro­grams and videos and, for 55-plus years, writer and colum­nist for an­other “ob­scure avi­a­tion rag” has man­aged to worm his way into the left seat of an as­ton­ish­ing 357 dif­fer­ent types of air­planes. Now, this ought to be a record, but it seems a Royal Navy test pi­lot, Capt. Eric Brown, lays claim to 487 dif­fer­ent types. So you can’t quit at 80, Barry Schiff; you have a lot more fly­ing ahead to catch up with that Brit.

Birth­days are usu­ally happy oc­ca­sions, but pile up enough of them, and sud­denly (or so it seems), you’re faced with grow­ing, well, old, along with its in­evitable byprod­ucts. Mon­i­tor­ing the miles on our Fit­bits, turn­ing down se­cond help­ings of fries and desserts, reg­u­lar check­ups and — per­haps most of all — luck and good genes cer­tainly con­trib­ute to long and good-qual­ity life, but none of us is Peter Pan; even the fittest, health­i­est and luck­i­est even­tu­ally face de­te­ri­o­rat­ing

By Martha Lunken

eye­sight, arthri­tis, choles­terol is­sues, car­dio­vas­cu­lar con­cerns or di­a­betes. Every flyer I know, as he gets older, is ob­sessed with the im­pact of ag­ing on his pi­lot­ing skills and de­ci­sion-mak­ing abil­i­ties (did I re­ally use that phrase)?

A buddy and I made a pact some years ago that, if we saw se­ri­ously sus­pi­cious men­tal be­hav­ior in the other, we’d point him or her to the near­est moun­tain or thun­der­storm. As we’ve got­ten older, that sce­nario has lost some of its charm, and any­way, it would be a waste of a per­fectly good air­plane.

Ag­ing grace­fully is an art — and a pain in the butt. It was a sem­i­nal moment when I asked my avi­a­tion med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s nurse if I should write brown or gray in the “hair color” block on my ap­pli­ca­tion and she very gen­tly said, “Uh, gray, dear.” And of course you re­mem­ber the first time your med­i­cal car­ried the lim­i­ta­tion, “Must wear cor­rec­tive lenses.” Most changes are grad­ual and just an­noy­ing, such as try­ing to climb sem­i­grace­fully into the back (not to men­tion the front) seat of a Cub; or mak­ing your crooked, arthritic fin­gers work while strug­gling to safety wire an oil fil­ter; or scoot­ing around on a creeper, de­greas­ing the belly of an air­plane.

For the more se­ri­ous stuff, there seem to be two cat­e­gories of fly­ers: those who re­al­ize “it’s time” and sur­ren­der grace­fully, and those who ei­ther deny the prob­lem or are will­ing to suf­fer what­ever tor­tures the FAA has de­vised for a spe­cial is­suance med­i­cal. Of course, with Ba­sicMed, the picture has changed dras­ti­cally. I con­fess, I won­der about abuses or mis­uses of med­i­cal re­form, but so far (it seems), so good.

The first age-re­lated pi­lot event I wit­nessed was in the 1970s, when an air­plane landed just be­fore an airshow and swerved off the run­way into the grass near the high-speed turnoff at Lunken Air­port. The Cessna was in­tact and a pas­sen­ger was stand­ing be­side it, but the tower had no con­tact with the pi­lot.

My fly­ing school was nearby, and I ran out to the air­plane, car­ry­ing an oxy­gen bot­tle. I can’t re­mem­ber if the pi­lot was laid in the grass by his teenage son or if the air­port peo­ple who re­sponded got him out, but I vividly re­mem­ber do­ing mouth-to-mouth breath­ing and al­ter­nately hold­ing the oxy­gen mask to his mouth while some­body did ch­est com­pres­sions. The fire depart­ment even­tu­ally ar­rived and took over, but his face was quite blue. There was no doubt he was gone.

He wasn’t re­ally all that old, and it was cer­tainly sad, but when Bing Crosby died dur­ing a golf game a few years later, I was re­minded of this man who died on roll­out af­ter land­ing his Cessna 180. Not a bad way to go.

Work­ing for the “dark side,” I en­coun­tered an as­sort­ment of ag­ing-pi­lot is­sues — long-re­tired air­line pi­lots fly­ing night freight who had “fen­der ben­ders” such as clip­ping wingtips on con­gested ramps, and re­tirees fly­ing aer­o­bat­ics with ex­pired med­i­cals. The “spe­cial is­suances” they’d held re­quired pe­ri­odic tests, which were ex­pen­sive, but the cost had been cov­ered by their air­lines.

And I won’t for­get the el­derly, con­fused pi­lot who flew his Bo­nanza from Florida for a doc­tor ap­point­ment, land­ing “no ra­dio” at two con­trolled air­ports be­fore reach­ing Cincin­nati. At Lunken, ob­vi­ously in dis­tress and con­fused, he es­caped an overzeal­ous (no, a down­right mean) FAA lady who had him chased by the cops and jailed for the week­end un­til he made bail and took a Grey­hound home. Note: All she had to do was qui­etly (and, OK, il­le­gally) dis­able the air­plane.

Most of you have prob­a­bly known the an­guish of see­ing old friends, long­time fly­ers, ex­hibit ob­vi­ous signs of men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. A friend of mine — a much beloved air­port owner and long­time CFI — got lost with a pre-solo stu­dent a few miles from his home air­port. And when an­other close friend showed sig­nif­i­cant signs of de­men­tia, I had the un­happy task of telling his sons he sim­ply could no longer fly.

As I write, two friends are tak­ing ex­pen­sive, gru­el­ing two-day psy­choneu­ro­log­i­cal tests af­ter “lack of oxy­gen” events.

But those dis­qual­i­fy­ing health is­sues aren’t in­evitable with age. I fondly re­mem­ber Eve­lyn John­son in Mor­ris­town, Ten­nessee, a CFI and pi­lot ex­am­iner into her 90s. And Bob Jones, “the man who taught east­ern Idaho to fly,” was ac­tive well into his 80s. Medics agree that, while re­ac­tion time usu­ally de­te­ri­o­rates with age, judg­ment and the abil­ity to make good de­ci­sions of­ten in­crease. Lots of 85-year-olds fly and suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate the sys­tem — and lots of 60-year-olds can’t. I guess we have to hon­estly po­lice our­selves and/or trust doc­tors, fam­ily and friends to in­ter­vene when nec­es­sary.

When I called to con­grat­u­late Schiff, he told me he was in­trigued by that 18-year-old Aus­tralian kid who solo cir­cum­nav­i­gated the globe in a Cir­rus SR22. That gave me a won­der­ful idea, kind of like Mickey Rooney telling Judy Garland, “Let’s have a show.”

“Barry, let’s be the old­est pi­lots to fly around the world. It won’t ex­actly be solo, but who­ever isn’t fly­ing will be asleep any­way. And there are great ‘se­nior perks.’ If we find a Rite Aid or Wal­greens en route, we get 20 per­cent off on the first Wed­nes­day each month and save all kinds of weight from big bot­tles of Cen­trum Sil­ver, Kaopec­tate, Pep­toBis­mol, Maalox, Dul­co­lax, Ben­gay, etc. If we’re forced down in north­ern Russia, there’s a 5 per­cent se­nior dis­count on the Trans-Siberian Ex­press, and $100 off Nor­we­gian Cruise Lines if they find us bob­bing around in a life raft. If we make Alaska, we get free hunt­ing, fishing and trap­ping, and 10 per­cent off if we have to aban­don our An-2 and hop a Trail­ways home.”

Capt. Schiff didn’t seem too ex­cited.

WORK­ING FOR THE “DARK SIDE,” I EN­COUN­TERED AN AS­SORT­MENT OF AGINGPILOT IS­SUES.

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