Tutorial: Soaring and The Aging Pilot

There’s no question but that certain of the physiological changes we lump under the heading of “aging” are detrimental to the piloting task.  The gradual degradation of visual acuity and the longer time taken to refocus are two such well-known effects.  Slower “reflexes” (reaction times) and memory faults are also widely appreciated as being part of aging.

The issue of aging is especially significant in soaring because the challenge and satisfaction soaring delivers is perfectly capable of retaining pilots’ lifelong interest, and also because glider pilots self-certify their medical fitness to fly.

While vision-, response-, and memory-related effects get a lot of attention, there are other, more subtle effects of aging that aren’t addressed as frequently as they should be.  For the soaring pilot, perhaps the most important of these is the declining ability to recognize, accept, and react to unexpected information reaching the cockpit.

This matters quite a lot because soaring in general, and cross-country soaring in particular, demand many more decisions per flight hour than virtually any other form of recreational flying.  Often these decisions hinge on subtle clues external to the cockpit and unfortunately, the ability to recognize these clues seems to be one of the things most readily lost as a sailplane pilot ages.

Another aspect of aging is the gradual degradation of the ability to absorb new information or to change long-standing habits.  This often manifests itself when a familiar sailplane is exchanged for a new ship.  Ironically, this may occur as an well-meant attempt to cope with the effects of aging, such as acquiring a sailplane that’s easier to assemble, easier to fly, or perhaps easier to enter and exit.

Finally, aging means that pilots must make extra effort to retain hard-won skills, and soaring’s seasonal nature makes this especially difficult.


How can you counter the effects of aging on your ability to perform as a soaring pilot?

Don’t try to operate with impaired vision. If you need glasses or contacts, use them.

Accept your slower reactions.  Don’t gaggle as tightly with other gliders and do be more generous with your separation on the ridge.  Allow more space for landings.

Don’t be tempted to rely on memory when this isn’t necessary.  Double check elevations on sectional charts.  Develop checklists for assembly, trailering, and flying, and use them without fail.  Many pilots are nonchalant about gear-up landings, but in reality a gear-up landing is a strong hint that you’re not really prepared for takeoff, either.  this endangers not only you, but your tow pilot as well.

Fly as often as you possibly can.  Rust is your enemy; repetition is your friend.

If necessary, become a true “snowbird.”  In many parts of the country the weather or field conditions are unflyable for months at a time.  Consider joining a club or commercial operation located in a more favorable locale.  Do this well before it matters; once your skills begin to degrade it may be too late.

If you’re thinking of changing gliders for your golden years, do it early, before the need’s apparent.

If your fellow soaring pilots approach you with concerns about your behavior or performance, pay close attention.  It’s unlikely they’re doing so for no reason.  Remember that long after your PIC days are over, you still have a lot to contribute:  you could fly two-seaters with other pilots and you can share your accumulated wisdom.