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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