What Age Is Too Late To Become A Pilot?

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Original publication date: October 15, 2023
Last Updated: November 25, 2023
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: Flight Physiology
Number of Comments: 0

Once you obtain your private pilot license, you join an exclusive club. This exclusive club comes with a lifetime membership. Once you get your pilot license, you are a pilot for life. Barring any circumstances which involve violating one or more FAA regulations, your pilot license can never be revoked.

While the FAA does not set an upper age limit for holders of a private pilot license, it does impose an upper age limit of 65 for commercial airline pilots. However, they may stay employed by the airline in some other capacity, in support of aircraft operations, such as a flight engineer.

Legally, there is nothing to stop a 90 year old private pilot from being able to exercise their privileges to operate an aircraft as pilot-in-command. Be that as it may, the question does arise as to whether there is a particular age at which it becomes “too late” to learn to fly.

Do you need to be fit to become a pilot?

It goes without saying that as people age, our cognitive abilities as well as our physical abilities generally trend along the path toward decline.

Unlike a drivers license, where there are no routine medical exams required in order to renew it and keep it active, a pilot license requires you to undergo routine medical exams and recertify your health every few years.

Flying is a demanding skill that requires:

  • Alertness
  • situation awareness
  • quick reflexes
  • the ability to make quick decisions
  • the ability to remain calm under pressure
  • being able to multitask
  • being able to manage a cockpit
  • being able to manage the passenger experience
  • being able to exert positive control over the aircraft from takeoff to touchdown

Therefore, the FAA has made physical fitness the highest priority for pilots. All it takes is for a pilot to exhibit a disqualifying medical condition during a medical examination, in order for them to become grounded.

This grounding could be temporary, until the pilot’s medical condition clears itself, improves, or can be demonstrated to be managed through medical intervention.

What are the medical requirements to become a pilot?

The medical requirements to become a pilot depend on what type of pilot license you are looking to pursue.

Medical Options For A General Aviation Private Pilot License

Option #1: 3rd Class Medical Certificate

Get a physical evaluation done by a FAA certified Aviation Medical Examiner, who will test your vision, your hearing, and assess your general overall physical fitness to fly.

The 3rd class medical certificate is valid for 60 months if you are under the age of 40, or for 24 months if you are over the age of 40.

Option #2: BasicMed

Get a physical evaluation by any general physician, who must assess your fitness to fly. This assessment is valid for 48 months. Additionally, you are required to take an online medical fitness course every 24 months.

The fitness requirements are generally less stringent for BasicMed than they are for a 3rd class medical certificate. As such, BasicMed comes with limitations that you are not otherwise subject to under a 3rd class medical:

  • Under BasicMed, you are restricted to flying airplanes with a gross takeoff weight not exceeding 6,000 pounds. You are also restricted to flying airplanes that can carry no more than 6 passengers, one of whom is the pilot themself.
  • BasicMed is recognized in the United States, Mexico, and the Bahamas only, at the time of this writing. Unfortunately it is not yet currently recognized in Canada. Hence, you cannot fly from the United States to Canada under BasicMed. (You would have to obtain a 3rd class medical certificate, instead.)
  • You cannot fly for hire or for compensation under BasicMed.

Medical Options For A Commercial Pilot License

If you wish to obtain a commercial pilot license, and thus open the doors to being able to be paid for flying, you will need to upgrade your medical certification to a 2nd class medical. This is one of the prerequisites for obtaining your commercial license.

A 2nd class medical certificate has stricter fitness requirements than a 3rd class certificate, specifically in terms of vision, hearing, and other general physical health.

2nd class medical certificates are valid for 12 months before they must be renewed through a follow up exam.

If your 2nd class medical lapses before you renew it, it automatically “downgrades” into a 3rd class medical certificate, which is subject to the validity period previously stated.

So you would still be able to fly, but you just would not be able to fly for compensation or hire, until you undergo another 2nd class medical exam with an FAA AME.

Medical Options For An Airline Pilot License

To fly for the airlines, you will need to level up to a 1st class medical certificate. This is even stricter than the 2nd class certificate which is enough for most non-airliner commercial aviation flight operations. This comes with a 6 month validity period, after which it expires and downgrades to a 2nd class certificate until it is renewed.

How old is too old to become a pilot?

Being that there is no federally mandated “upper age limit” for private pilots, you can pursue a private pilot license at any stage in your life, as long as you can pass the required medical exams as stipulated above.

The only pilots who are subject to a maximum age limit are commercial airline pilots.

According to this memorandum from the FAA, commercial airline pilots have a hard upper limit of age 65, after which they may no longer fly for a commercial airline.

Commercial airline pilots can, as a matter of course, continue to exercise the privileges of their commercial pilot license, in other non-airline aviation operations. For example, a charter jet, banner towing, crop-dusting, aerial tours, and the like.

But then there is still the lingering question:

How old is too old to fly?

Or stated another way, the question might be:

Can you ever be too old to fly?

Perhaps your answer might be:
You are never too old to fly!

You are only as young as you feel!

Flying makes you feel alive!

While fancy, optimistic platitudes such as these might be the answer you want to hear, the FAA does also offer a reality-check, tempering the expectations of the most optimistic amongst us.

Just because a pilot can fly doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. This is a cold-hearted truth. But it is an issue that many aspiring pilots have to grapple with as they approach their golden years.

Even if a pilot can pass a medical exam with flying colors (no pun intended), the FAA does emphasize the importance of conducting a self-assessment before each and every flight. It is part of every pilot’s pre-flight checklist.

In fact, when it comes to pilot self-assessment with respect to fitness for flight, the FAA provides not one, but two, checklists:

What is the PAVE checklist?

The FAA is big on checklists. And the FAA is even bigger on the use of acronyms for use as handy mnemonic devices to help you remember these checklists!

With respect to a personal risk-assessment of your readiness to conquer the skies, the FAA provides the “PAVE” checklist. This checklist is not legally binding, however it is used as the basis for self-auditing your readiness.

It used to help every pilot make a go-no-go decision whether to proceed with the flight or not.

P – Pilot In Command (PIC)
It does not matter whether you are 21 or 71 years of age!
The universality of this “age-agnostic” checklist speaks for itself:
Does the PIC have the appropriate certificates and ratings in order to carry out this particular flight, given the proposed route, the forecast weather, and the performance characteristics of the aircraft?Is the PIC proficient in the type of aircraft being flown?
Does the PIC meet the necessary currency requirements in order to be able to legally carry out the flight?Is the PIC physically fit for the rigors of flight?
Is the PIC suffering from any illness, ailment, disability, or other physical condition that might pose a risk to carry out the flight?Is the PIC well-rested and not suffering from any type of fatigue?
Is the PIC mentally and emotionally fit for the flight?Is the PIC suffering from any type of stress in their personal or professional life that might cloud their judgment or which might jeopardize their ability to carry out the flight rationally and with mental clarity?
Is the PIC familiar with all of the pertinent regulations and procedures, pertaining to the flight?Has the PIC conducted the proper flight planning necessary in order to carry out the flight?

A – Aircraft
This item from the PAVE checklist doesn’t have any bearing on the pilot’s age or their fitness to fly. However, it bears mentioning here for completeness, nonetheless:
Is the aircraft in an airworthy condition?Is the aircraft and all of its systems current with respect to all of its regulatory inspection requirements?
Is the aircraft properly equipped for the intended flight, in terms of navigation and communication? Does it meet the requirements for flying into the type of airspace that you plan to fly through?
Does it meet the requirements for the weather that you will be flying through, in terms of instrumentation and in terms of flight within the aircraft’s performance envelope?Has the aircraft passed its preflight inspection?
Is the aircraft within weight and balance limits?Does the aircraft meet the requirements of its Minimum Equipment List (MEL)?

V – Environment
This item from the PAVE checklist is about the pilot’s competence with respect to navigating the intended route of flight and the route’s environmental conditions:
Has the PIC thoroughly checked all available weather information pertinent to the intended flight? This includes current conditions, forecasts, and weather-related NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen).Are there any challenging environmental conditions that you need to take into consideration, such as the type of terrain you are flying over? (For example, large bodies of water, mountains, canyons, or any man-made obstacles?)
Are the airports of intended use (and any designated alternates) suitable for takeoff and landing, for your particular aircraft and which fall within your personal limitations?Are there any considerations with respect to the airspace that you plan to fly through, or with respect to your ability and your need to communicate with ATC (Air Traffic Control)?

E – External Pressure
This item from the PAVE checklist directly relates to the impact that external factors play on the PIC’s fitness to fly. This item, like “P” above, is also age-agnostic. It does not matter whether you are young or old. External factors can impact anyone, at any age. As you get older, you may find yourself faced with external pressures to “prove” that you can “handle” a flight as well as a younger pilot can.
Are you under any type of pressure to fly? For example, you may be compelled to get home or to your destination as quickly as possible. (This is commonly referred to in aviation parlance as “get-there-itis”.)
Perhaps there is adverse weather approaching, and you wish to rush to get to your destination before the weather becomes a factor?
Perhaps you wish to get home before sunset, so as to avoid having to fly in the dark?Perhaps there is an important personal or professional commitment that is happening at a certain time, that you don’t want to be late for?
Perhaps you do not want to disappoint your passengers, or the party that you intend to meet at your destination?Perhaps your passengers are urging you to complete the flight?
Do you have a plan B, in case you decide to remain grounded?If you are being pressured to complete a flight, whereas you have doubts about whether or not you should actually complete that flight, then it is important that you do not let external pressures cloud your judgment.
Perhaps you do not want to disappoint your passengers, or the party that you intend to meet at your destination.Do you have a plan B, in case you decide to remain grounded?

What should you do if you fail the PAVE checklist?

If you and / or your aircraft fails to satisfy all of the requirements of the PAVE checklist, then you are better off doing one of the following:

  • waiting it out
  • flying a shorter distance and taking a break
  • flying to an alternate airport
  • just taking ground transportation instead

There is the old adage:

“It is better to be on the ground, wishing you were up in the air, than to be in the air, wishing you were on the ground”.

Would the completion of the flight exceed any self-imposed personal limitations? Trying to “challenge” yourself or “prove” that you can do it, is another form of unhealthy, hazardous mental attitude, commonly referred to in aviation as a “macho” attitude. 

If you are an older pilot, then you may feel the need to “prove” that you can “handle” the flight, as well as a younger version of yourself can.

However, it is important that you take a step back for a bit of a reality check.

Be true to yourself, and don’t let your ego cloud your judgment. If you need to cancel the flight, cancel it. Perhaps you should plan the flight in such a way that it can be performed within your personal limitations, and you should temper the expectations of the people in your life who may be pressuring you or expecting you to fly.

There is no need to be trying to impress them.

The PAVE checklist serves as a tool to help identify risks so that pilots can determine if the risks are manageable and whether it’s safe to proceed. It helps to structure thinking and prevent overlooking critical details. Young or old, the risk factors listed above can apply to anyone.

What is the IMSAFE checklist?

The IMSAFE checklist is another mnemonic adopted by the FAA as a means for pilots to self-assess their fitness for flight. It covers both their physical as well as their mental preparedness for flying.

Sadly, young pilots may find it frivolous to have to utilize this checklist (this feeling of “invincibility” being itself is classified as a hazardous flight attitude by the FAA). Likewise, older pilots may be in denial and may not want to admit that there could be anything wrong with them that could preclude them from flying.

Some pilots unfortunately may beguile themselves into believing that as long as they have a valid medical certificate, that all is well, and they are cleared medically to fly anytime that they want.

However, the reality is that it is imperative for all pilots, regardless of age, to iterate through this checklist before every flight, possibly even before leaving home to head toward the airport.

I – IllnessIs the PIC currently suffering from a particular illness, exhibiting any symptoms of the onset of an illness, or even recovering from a recent illness? Even minor illnesses can greatly affect a pilot’s ability to safely operate an aircraft.
M – MedicationIs the PIC currently taking any medications, regardless of whether they are prescription or over-the-counter? Some medications can have side effects or could temporarily impair a pilot’s judgment, reaction times, or even their cognitive functionality. Are any of these medications on the FAA Do-Not-Issue / Do-Not-Fly list? The FAA prohibits pilots from flying if they have taken or are taking the medications on this list.
S – StressIs the PIC undergoing any type of significant stress in their life? This stress could be financial or it could be interpersonal, for example. Emotional stress of this nature can detract from a pilot’s ability to stay focused, process information, and be able to think rationally.
A – AlcoholHas the pilot consumed alcohol within the last 8 hours? The FAA has a “8-hour “bottle to throttle” rule. This means that the pilot must not have consumed alcohol within at least the preceding 8 hours prior to flight. Even small amounts of alcohol can impair a pilot’s decision-making and reflexes. This is true, even if the pilot’s blood-alcohol level is within legal limits. It is best to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol consumption, 8 or more hours before a flight.
F – FatigueIs the PIC sufficiently rested? Fatigue can be every bit as impairing as the consumption of alcohol or drugs. Fatigue can substantially degrade many aspects of cognitive function. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that a pilot be well-rested prior to a flight.
E – EatingIs the pilot well-nourished? Hunger pangs and low blood sugar can indeed hinder the pilot’s decision-making ability and upset their mood. Eating regular meals and maintaining proper nutrition can help ensure a pilot’s body and brain function optimally.
The IMSAFE checklist for pilot self-assessment for fitness for flight.

As with the PAVE checklist, the IMSAFE checklist is a tool to help pilots systematically assess their fitness for flying, reminding them of important personal factors to consider before deciding to fly. Both checklists are essential aspects of aeronautical decision-making and risk management.

At What Age Should A Private Pilot Stop Flying?

The debate over the issue of at what age a pilot should stop flying has a direct impact on the safety of not only the pilot and the passengers they may carry with them, but also on the safety of the people and property on the ground.

The FAA has determined that the age of 65 is the ideal point at which commercial airline pilots must retire, irrespective of their physical fitness. This mandate helps to ensure the safety of the pilots, passengers, and the general public at large. The physical and mental demands of flying can become more challenging as a pilot ages, and thusly the FAA has enacted this mandatory retirement rule.

While this retirement rule does not apply to private pilots or even for holders of a commercial pilot license who fly for for other than the airlines, it behooves every pilot to take their health and their well-being seriously.

Pilots are required to have excellent vision, hearing, and motor skills, as well as to demonstrate the ability to make quick decisions in high-pressure situations.

It’s one thing to pass a medical exam every few years. But it is another thing to face the physical and mental demands of pilotage head-on, in the cockpit.

As a person ages, their cognitive and physical abilities naturally face an inevitable decline, no matter how minute. This decline can potentially impact their ability to navigate an aircraft and maintain proper cockpit management safely, efficiently, and effectively.

For example, older pilots may experience slower reaction times, reduced visual acuity, decreased cognitive function, and decreased stamina, all of which can affect their ability to fly safely.

Additionally, the stress of flying can also take a toll on a pilot’s health, further exacerbating the challenges faced by older pilots.

Who Are The United Flying Octogenarians?

None of this is meant to imply that older pilots should not be flying. 

There are plenty of octogenarian and even nonagenarian pilots who are still indulging in the thrill of aviation. There even exists an organization through which elderly pilots can advocate for themselves through the “United Flying Octogenarians”.

Does Increased Lifespan Mean Airline Pilots Can Fly Longer?

While there are valid concerns about the physical and mental demands of flying as a pilot ages, there are also arguments that can be made for extending the retirement age.

  • People are living longer.
  • We have access to vastly improved medical technology.
  • Many pilots are able to maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise throughout their golden years.

However, the FAA has resolved upon age 65 as the cutoff for airline pilots. Until the data shows otherwise in terms of reduced flight risk despite increased age, the FAA may not be looking to raise this limit anytime soon.

It’s Never Too Late To Become A Private Pilot.

Ultimately, the decision on when a private pilot should stop flying is a personal one. Assuming one is not already barred from flying due to a failed medical exam, pilots can continue to fly indefinitely, so long as they are able to maintain their physical and mental health.

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt.

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