What qualifies an older pilot as fit to fly?
The sudden death of a 60-year-old pilot during a Continental Airlines flight over the Atlantic on Thursday is causing some to take a second look at the new extended age limit for commercial pilots – and others to question the quality of medical exams pilots undergo.
In 2007, Congress raised the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots from 60 to 65, after pilots' unions argued successfully that demographics show people are living longer, healthier lives.
All pilots over age 40 must undergo a medical examination every six months. Such requirements are not unusual for people working in fields such as public transportation, law enforcement, and other jobs for which physical and mental fitness are important to public safety.
The death of pilot Craig Lenell, who a doctor traveling on board said apparently died of a heart attack, did not result in a safety crisis. Two co-pilots, who are trained to deal with such circumstances, landed the plane uneventfully at Newark International in New Jersey.
But his age and the circumstances of his death are causing some analysts to question the wisdom of extending the age limit for commercial pilots. Still others, including some pilots, say the issue isn't age but the quality of the medical exams required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
"The bigger issue is one of fitness to fly. There is no integrity in the medical examining system," writes a commercial pilot in an e-mail. "We go in every six months and look at the same eye chart with the same doctor, [give a urine sample,] and hook up to an EKG [which measures the electrical activity of the heart] and answer the same question, 'Any changes?' You say, 'Nope,' pay your fee and get your ticket punched."
The FAA and other commercial pilots defend the exam as stringent and thorough.
"The FAA exams are very thorough, and they do a great job in finding things when they are wrong," says DJ Frost, an international commercial pilot who asked that the name of his airline not be identified.
Lenell, who lived on a farm outside of Houston, was in good health, according to his wife. She told a local television station Thursday that he had no known heart condition and underwent standard physicals twice a year.
"Continental is stringent about the physicals," Lynda Lenell said to KHOU-TV in a phone conversation. "He saw a flight surgeon every six months, and he's never, ever had any kind of problems."
The experience that comes with years can count for much. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was 57 when he sure-handedly landed a crippled passenger jet in the Hudson River in January, delivering all aboard to safety. He has been flying for more than 40 years.
It's rare for pilots to die during a flight, says the FAA. Since 1994, when the agency began tracking incidents, only five pilots have died from health issues while on duty in the cockpit. Their ages ranged from 48 to 57. Requirements for what's called a First Class Airman Medical Certificate include a threshold for mental and physical health.
"We believe this is one of the few industries that requires a medical exam every six months, and we stand by the integrity of the exam," says Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman. "It is also the pilots' duty to do everything possible to ensure they're physically fit to fly."
Many pilots exercise regularly, says Mr. Frost, who counts himself in that category.
But the pilot who questions the integrity of the medical exam, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to talk to the press, says not all pilots take fitness to fly as seriously as they should. The medical exam, he says, is not sufficient to identify that.