Seat of the Pants

CAPTAIN Al Haynes says he's no hero, but 184 passengers and crew aboard his crippled DC-10 last week know better. His steadiness and cockpit leadership and - most of all - his 33 years experience made all the difference for those who survived. When the rule book had no advice for total hydraulic failure, it had to be seat-of-the-pants to a crash landing that saved many lives. Captain Haynes's story of extraordinary airmanship (like that of the 59 year-old pilot earlier this year who landed his jet in Honolulu with two engines out and a large hole in the side) raises again the subject of mandatory age-60 retirement for airline pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration is sticking to its rule, despite questions about its arbitrariness and despite the serious need for pilots as growing numbers retire.

The FAA says pilots over 60 are more susceptible to medical problems in the cockpit and tend to lose their edge. The agency says it has the facts to back this up, but others disagree. Rep. Edward Roybal, who heads the House Select Committee on Aging, calls the FAA rule ``arbitrary, without a basis in medical fact.'' The National Institute on Aging says that if accident rates are plotted against flying hours instead of age, more experienced pilots like those with the airlines have a safer record. Others note that things likely to affect safety - like drug and alcohol abuse - are a greater problem among younger pilots.

The airlines are doing all they can to recruit and train new pilots as Captain Haynes's generation retires, including loosening some hiring restrictions. But they should also be able to retain those who want to keep flying and who can demonstrate they are just as good as ever. Testing procedures surely can be devised to do this while maintaining high safety standards. For as former FAA chief Donald Engen has said, ``When push comes to shove, when everything turns to worms, experience is what really counts.''

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