Covering the Continental Pilot Death Story

The 61-year-old Continental Airlines pilot who died at the controls on his way from Brussels to Newark, N.J., Thursday would not have been allowed to fly a commercial jetliner in 2007 when the mandatory retirement age was 60 years old. The new retirement age is 65.

The issue was hotly debated for decades but cooled when 57-year-old Chelsey “Sulley” Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River and saved 155 lives earlier this year.

Worldwide, the common retirement age for pilots is 65 years. When the issue arose a couple of years ago, there were high-profile supporters and opponents.

The AARP Bulletin, “Experience Counts,” said national studies show older pilots are safer:

“The study ‘showed that pilots in the age group of 24 to 39 had the highest number of accidents,’ [retired pilot Bert Yetman] told the commission, ‘and pilots 55 and over had virtually no accidents. The charts accompanying the study showed no potential of increased accidents until [the pilots reached] age 68 or 69, and then nowhere near the level of the 24-to-39-year group.’

“The age 60 rule was instituted in 1959 by the FAA, which cited safety concerns. The 2007 change followed a move by European aviation authorities to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 for most international pilots. U.S. pilots were particularly angered when European pilots over 60 flew into the United States at an age when they were forced to retire.”

The Allied Pilots Association supported the age 60 rule [PDF] and opposed changing it. The association said that “the Age 60 Rule makes sense and is in place to protect America’s flying public.”

The Aerospace Medical Association position statement said [PDF]:

“This issue of the Age-60 Rule can be reduced to three questions. After age 60,

  1. will air transport pilots have a higher aircraft accident rate?
  2. will there be significant performance decrement in the cockpit?
  3. will there be an unacceptable risk of inflight sudden incapacitation due to medical causes?”…
“…on review of existing evidence, the Aerospace Medical Association concludes there is insufficient medical evidence to suggest restriction of pilot certification based on age alone.”

The FAA explained the regulations that took effect in 2007 [PDF]:

  • As of 12/13/07, part 121, 121.383(c), specifying age 60, ceases to be effective.
  • A pilot age 60+ acting as pilot in command (PIC) in international operations must be paired with a pilot under age 60 (consistent with the current ICAO requirement).
  • In domestic operations both pilots may be age 60+.
  • It permits the continued employment of a pilot who reaches age 60 on or after 12/13/07.
  • It permits the employment as a new-hire a pilot who reached age 60 before 12/13/07.
  • A pilot age 60+ will not be subjected to different, greater, or more frequent medical exams.
  • Any pilot age 60+ must hold a first-class medical certificate, renewable on a 6-month cycle.
  • Any air carrier employing pilots age 60+ must adjust its training program to ensure such pilots’ skill and judgment continue at acceptable levels.
  • Any pilot age 60+ must undergo a line check at 6-month intervals.
  • For a pilot age 60+ acting as second in command (SIC), a regularly scheduled simulator evaluation may substitute for a required line check.

The first officer landed the Continential Airlines Flight 61 plane safely in Newark. First officers for commercial airlines have at least 1,500 hours of experience on these big planes. That is a lot.

What do first officers do? First officers often fly the plane in order to keep their proficiency high. explained:

“The first officer, the second in command, sits on the right side of the cockpit. He or she has all of the same controls as the captain, and has had the same level of training. The primary reason for having two pilots on every flight is safety. Obviously, if something happens to the captain, a plane must have another pilot who can step in. Additionally, the first officer provides a second opinion on piloting decisions, keeping pilot error to a minimum.

“Most airliners built before 1980 have a cockpit position for a flight engineer, also called the second officer. Typically, flight engineers are fully trained pilots, but on an ordinary trip, they don’t fly the plane. Instead, they monitor the airplane’s instruments and calculate figures such as ideal takeoff and landing speed, power settings and fuel management. In newer airliners, most of this work is done by computerized systems, eliminating the need for the flight-engineer position. In the future, it will be phased out entirely.”

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