Airline Pilots-How Old is ‘Too Old’ to Fly?

Airline Pilots-How Old is ‘Too Old’ to Fly?

A United Airlines Pilot had a heart attack mid-flight earlier today. Pilot Henry Skillern, 63, was piloting a flight from Houston when he suffered a heart attack while in the air. The flight made an emergency landing in Boise Idaho, but it was too late; Skillern died while being treated at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. His death is sparking up new conversation about how old is “too old” for pilots to fly.

Although Skillern suffered a dramatic mid-flight emergency, eye witnesses described the scene on the plane as “calm.” Two doctors happened to be aboard and they led CPR efforts in Skillern in the first class cabin. It was reported that Skillern weighed approximately 300 pounds.

The Associated Press reports that there are several conditions which could have led to Skillern’s heart attack. Risks that pilots face include dehydration and deep vein thrombosis which is also called DVT. This  is usually a medical emergency in which a blood clot devleopes in a leg vein, disrupting blood flow to the heart. Pilots are at a greater risk for DVT than are normal passengers, who are able to get up and walk around during the flight. This movement keeps the blood from coagulating in the legs and ensures that it is flowing through the body. Pilots, on the other hand, are not able to get up and walk around during the flight.

CNN reports that the tragedy could re-ignite discussions on the age limit for pilots. Six years ago, the age limit for pilots to face mandatory retirement was changed from age 60 to age 65. At that time, it was reported that five pilots had had fatal in-air emergencies since 1994.  FAA spokesperson Marion Blakey said that there was good reason to shift the age limit, explaining “Foreign airlines have demonstrated that experienced pilots in good health can fly beyond age 60 without compromising safety.” She also clarified that experience counts for a lot when it comes to deciding what is a safe age for a pilot to continue flying.

With regard to a previous case, that of pilot Craig Lennell, commenters on a pilot forum pointed out that age should not be the main concern. “A lot of outwardly healthy individuals drop dead in their 40s from heart attacks. I don’t think, therefore, there is much mileage in dwelling on the upping of the [retirement] age. If the guy had been 59 … this wouldn’t even have been part of the discussion,” said one commenter. Another said that as long as a pilot can pass his or her required physical, then age should not be an issue.

Former pilot Justin Green said, “I don’t think there is a magic age. Big airline pilots, especially those flying internationally, are among the most carefully monitored people in terms of their health.” Currently, all pilots 40 and up must take and pass two physicals per year. Requirements include having 20/40 vision or better, and being free and clear of a variety of medical ailments.

The latest airline tragedy will surely fire up the discussion about airline pilots and how old is “too old” to fly. As always, safety is the primary concern of the FAA, for pilots and passengers alike.

By: Rebecca Savastio

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7 Responses to "Airline Pilots-How Old is ‘Too Old’ to Fly?"

  1. James Pierrot   January 21, 2014 at 7:01 am

    The health of a pilot is relevant more so than age. Many pilots fly business jets way up into their seventies, privately up into their nineties as my flight instructor was. Fitness is the ultimate goal if longevity is to keep you as a pilot healthy and safe in any kind of environment regardless of his or her age. I am sixty-one, healthier than I have ever been in my life, and that’s because I chose to be. I stay fit because I want to fly way into my eighties.

    The pilot programs especially for airline pilots require physicals every six months, the airlines would do well to implement a physical fitness program that insures their pilots remain physically fit to serve. Over weight pilots should be put on notice to lose the weight or lose their jobs. Come on, is a 300 pound pilot fit? I think not, he’s a walking time bomb of fatty tissue and heart weakness just carrying that extra weight around. Now add the pooling affect of flight sitting at his controls for hours on end.

    I can bet this guy was on blood pressure medication for years. This wasn’t a matter of if this pilot would have a heart attack but when. Flying is hard on the human body, age has nothing to do with their physical fitness to fly, taking responsibility for their health is a pilots responsibility but like all humans not everyone does his part in keeping physically fit.

    Fitness is everything when it comes to flying. If you weigh 300 pounds as a pilot, how fit do you really think you are? This pilot should have been knocked out of his command seat long before his heart attack took him out of it. He’s obviously unfit to fly, doesn’t take a committee to figure this one out or the FAA. The FAA medical examiner most likely approved blood pressure pills for this guy when they should have put him on notice to lose the weight.

  2. Zingmoon   September 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Given that there’s a lot of couch potatoes in their 20’s,30’s,40’s who are in far worse shape than some 70 year olds, I’d say the whole “age” thing is ridiculous. There are people that live to be nearly 120 who were in better shape than this pilot when they were 100. So I think it should be about a persons general health only. Ask in a blog where mostly under 30 year olds will answer, and you’ll get some really stupid ideas about what old age is. Ask a 5 year old and they will tell you 9 is old. Many men tend to have heart attacks in their mid 30’s to mid 40’s. Recently some young 20something hollwood stars had very serious health problems, including women. 70’s show, Lisa Kelly, dead at 43 from a heart attack, and likely due to treating her body badly, but then how do we know what pilots are health nuts and which ones neglect their bodies, or drink after work? So the likely reason for this guy to have a heart attack isn’t due to being in his 60’s, but because the problem or weakness was likely already there. Or he was not medicated properly. Also lots of young people are rushed to the hospital every day with some heart related issues, palpitations, high heart rate, murmurs. Often that leads to just a temporary episode, but they are not flying a plane during that. They get to lay down, get better, get checked, get treated. So this age thing is kind of silly. I guess I’d worry if he were 20 to 25 years older.. but usually they retire by 65 anyway.

  3. Frederick   September 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    I know of pilots that are still flying private planes at the of 85. I fly model radio controlled airplanes and I’ll be 85 next year.

  4. Gypsy Williams   September 27, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    He was not to old he was to fat

  5. megrinaldi   September 27, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    good grief! the fellow weighed over 300 pounds. the question is not how old but how fit? there are 25 year olds in this country who are grossly overweight, with diabetes and high cholesterol. it’s not about age.

  6. Mike   September 27, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    How old was Sully who safely landed a plane in the water near La Guardia?

  7. phil   September 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    age should never be an issue its a matter of ability


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