The old saying that there are no old, bold pilots is not quite true. This accident will hit closer to home for some of us than others.
The synopsis is that of an 86-year-old pilot illegally giving charitable sight-seeing rides. He apparently stalled a Cessna 206 on short final with 5 paying passengers aboard. There were no survivors.
A medical mess
The pilot’s medical certificate was based on fraudulent information provided to the Aviation Medical Examiner and apparently the examiner did not check the pilot’s eyes very carefully. The pilot had been treated for age-related macular degeneration in both eyes for over 2 years. Three weeks before the accident, his distant visual acuity without correction was recorded as 20/200 for each eye. On at least two occasions the pilot’s retinal specialist advised him not to drive. However, the pilot continued to drive and was involved in a traffic accident, turning in front of an oncoming vehicle, 10 days before the aircraft accident. He also suffered from severe coronary artery disease. None of this was reported to the AME whose examining authority was revoked after the accident.
The pilot ran his own airport and had been de-certified by the fuel provider for failing to perform appropriate quality control checks. He’d had four traffic accidents since 1998 and a gear up landing accident while giving dual instruction in a Cessna 210 in 2007. Other pilots reported concerns ranging from his failure to use the CTAF to unexpected and non-standard maneuvers in the traffic pattern. It was estimated that the pilot had over 30,000 hours. Something of a pattern seems to be developing here.
Our safety and regulatory system is largely based on pilot integrity. The FAA occasionally will verify things but for Part 91 operation they generally leave us alone. The charity sightseeing rules were put into place after some particularly bad accidents demanded closer oversight since the innocent public was now being offered rides. Clearly, low flight time was not an issue here and it might be debated that the rules would not have prevented this accident.
Was age or some sort of incapacitation a factor in this? Perhaps. NTSB felt that the pilot might have had trouble seeing the airspeed indicator. Any group that conducts charity flights should come up with a policy regarding pilot capability. This doesn’t automatically preclude older pilots but there should be a solid methodology to insure that the pilot is able to function safely. Older pilots, as a group, have a disproportionate number of mishaps. In some cases it may have nothing to do with age. Older pilots also tend to be wealthier and perhaps to have more time to fly, so exposure could be greater.
However, as with driving cars, there comes a time when the eyes, the ears and the eye-to-hand coordination begins to deteriorate. Cognitive processing slows down. When and exactly how all this degradation occurs is wired into each of us individually. Some pilots begin to have age-related deterioration in their late 50s while the United Flying Octogenarians have members who are successfully aviating into their 90’s.
As I’ve written too many times, we do not need more rules but just to apply the ones that exist. It means being honest with ourselves and recognizing that when other people entrust their lives to us, the standard of care goes way up. There comes a time to hang up your guns.