Old & Bold

May 5, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

BlogThe 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 None of this was reported to the AME whose examining authority was revoked after the accident.

Anti-Authority Attitude

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.

More Rules?

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.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • John Townsley

    Not mentioned in your article, nor in the NTSB accident report is that this pilot was the quinessimal “alpha male”. A former State legislator, fighter pilot, and a major partiarch of his community, his hubris was stroked by everyone he met. Just read the local media accounts of the accident. Even after the NTSB report was available and it was clear he had no business in the cockpit many who commented on the news reports and post crash litigation criticised the victims families rather than the pilot. There were numerous failures that led up to this accident: First – the pilot demonstrated a serious anti-authority attitde, next he lacked basic judgement and demonstrated an inability to fly safely (read descriptions of his unique ‘button hook approaches”, as well as his failure to use a radio and to exercise basic ‘see and avoid’ skills on the day of the accident… Next – according to the accident report there were several near mid air incidents caused by this pilot … yet no one spoke up to the pilot. Several local pilots knew of his idiosyncracies and failure to exercise judgement – yet they didn’t speak up. The pilot dominated planning and advertising for the Lions Club event, yet none of the club members spoke up to protest his actions either before or during the fly-in. If anyone could have helped prevent the accident, it was the pilot’s family, which included at least one certificated pilot. No one in the family stood up to “Dad” and suggested he take a break, and hang up his wings. There are plenty of links to this accident chain, only a few of them are directly associated with the pilot himself.

  • http://www.aopa.org/asf Bruce Landsberg


    You bring up some good points as to when intervention is appropriate. Most people are careful not to overstep their bounds relative to other pilot’s flying. But when a pilot is having more than a bad day the community has some obligation to say something.

    Blaming the passengers is extremely damaging to the image of GA. We cannot and should not defend the indefensible. Appreciate your thoughts.

  • http://www.chachalacaaero.com Mike Baker

    One other thought comes to mind….. At the age of 86 it is certainly possible for the onset of dementia of one sort or another to be a factor. It is often a gradual process but it would affect the individuals ability to recognize his trouble himself. Have dealt with a similar problem in our own family. Your right, we all need to realize the day may come for us to “hang it up”……

  • Lothar K

    Here are my questions:
    1) Why did the FAA not step in after all the traffic accidents and AP incidednts?
    2) Why did the medical examiner not realized/recognize the “down sloping”
    or his mental [+physical?] health” of this pilot?
    3) Were were the safeguards?

    Small town communities have a unique interrelations ships. Maybe the FAA and the medical examiners need to step in here.

    Smooooooooooooooooth landings,

  • Kurt

    Arrogance. Period.