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Young pilots riskier than the over-60s who are turned away

Minutes after the TWA Boeing 727 had taken off from New Yorks LaGuardia Airport and was climbing above 10,000 feet, the flight engineer shifted his attention from the control panel to the cockpit window. He caught a glimpse of death. The jetliner inadvertently had caught up with a Beechcraft Bonanza, a single-engine, private aircraft.

“The windscreen was full of Bonanza, he recalled from his home in Incline Village, Nev. “I could see the pilot's red baseball cap.

The captain and his co-pilot had their heads bowed, tinkering with instruments, oblivious to the imminent catastrophe. “I started to say, Look out! or, Oh my God! and the captain looked up and saw him, said Ed Kirkpatrick, the flight engineer at the time. “We just held our breath, cause we just goddamn knew we were going to hit him, or he was going to strike our tail.

But instead of dropping the nose — which Kirkpatrick said he and the co-pilot instinctively would have done, with the risk that the Bonanza would strike the jets tail — the captain made a hard roll to the right and missed the private aircraft altogether.

The captain had less than one month to go before his federally mandated retirement at age 60.

“It had to have been his experience, asserted Kirkpatrick, now himself a Southwest Airlines captain reaching retirement age. “Its not a technique anybody would have applied, or been trained for. It was his judgment that thats what was required.

Although that harrowing incident occurred 25 years ago, it is one of many unpublicized “close calls” in which experience saved the day.

Untold scores of airline passengers are alive because of the sometimes dramatic—though usually unheralded—action by veteran pilots who summon time-honed skills and intuition to rescue aircraft and their human cargo from tragedy. Yet these same pilots, who several government studies show are at the peak of performance, are yanked from the cockpit when they turn 60 because of a 41-year-old federal rule born of cronyism and bogus medical claims and sustained by massive doses of political contributions.

Examples gathered by The Public i illustrate how valuable these old-timers can be in the cockpit.

A Public i investigation has found that:

  • In 1959, when it clipped the wings of 60-year-old airline pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration said it did so purely to improve safety, asserting that older aviators were at risk of becoming incapacitated. An unstated reason was deep-seated cronyism between the agencys administrator and the CEO of American Airlines, who had been thwarted by labor arbitrators in his effort to get rid of costly senior captains.
  • Despite a preponderance of research showing that older pilots in many instances fly more safely than younger ones, the government has steadfastly refused to modify its rule —or even make exceptions for captains willing to undergo rigorous medical and psychological tests not required of younger pilots.
  • U.S. airlines are adding pilots at a record pace, with several lowering their hiring standards because of a growing shortage in the supply of experienced pilots. Many of those with the most experience — those over 60 — are being lost to foreign carriers that have higher retirement ages, or no age limit at all.
  • While blocking healthy captains from flying after the cutoff age, the FAA has been liberal over the years in certifying alcoholics, past drug abusers, pilots with psychiatric problems, and those who are blind in one eye or deaf in one ear, as well as hundreds who have undergone multiple heart bypass operations.
  • The dominant pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), once a vigorous defender of senior pilots, now wants them out of the way to allow its junior members a faster track to the coveted — and lucrative — captains position. It has effectively blocked any administrative or legislative change by doling out millions of dollars to politicians backing its cause.

Always a sham

While some airlines, notably American and Southwest, have publicly advocated eliminating the age barrier, the Air Transport Association of America the nation’s oldest and largest airline trade organization, with 23 U.S. and five international members has “no position on the age 60 rule,” vice president of operations Al Prest said in an interview.

The age-60 rule was a sham from the beginning.

In the mid-50s, Western Airlines, TWA and American tried to impose a mandatory retirement age outside of contractual negotiations with their union chapters, which vigorously opposed any such fixed age. The airlines were awash in pilot applicants at the time, including veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict, and a large number of the pioneer airmen hired in the 1920s and ’30s were approaching 60.

But labor arbitrators ruled against the airlines.

American had a trump card

The matter could have died there, but Americans founder and then-president, C. R. Smith, had a trump card: his war-time buddy, Elwood “Pete” Quesada, a former Army Air Corps lieutenant general, who had recently been named the first administrator of the newly created FAA by his former military commander, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During World War II, Quesada had been commander of the 9th Fighter Command, which spearheaded the Allied invasion of France, and Smith, who held the rank of major general, had served as deputy commander of the Air Transport Command.

In a series of what appear to have been personally typed “Dear Pete“ letters in early 1959, Smith petitioned Quesada for a regulatory fix for “some suitable age for retirement.

Three months after asking for a regulatory “fix, Smith provided Quesada with “evidence” that the old-timers should be put out to pasture. The senior captains had a tougher time adapting to the newfangled jets that American was buying in droves — Boeing 707 — than the more recently hired pilots, many of whom had military experience in fighter jets and other high-performance airplanes.

Since the transition from prop-driven planes to the new jets predated sophisticated simulators, virtually all of the training had to be conducted on the airplane itself. “Flying a jet airplane was an order of magnitude more expensive than flying the DC-7 propeller aircraft, recalled Samuel D. Woolsey, a retired United captain.

Woolsey remembers that the older pilots, used to the instant response of the piston aircraft, were suddenly faced with a much more sluggish jet. “In those years, the engines on the 707s spooled up very slowly, so when you floorboarded the throttles, instead of getting an instant acceleration, it took several seconds for the engine to accelerate and the thrust to increase . . . And the jet, being much cleaner aerodynamically than the older prop planes, took a longer time and distance to slow down, he explained. “The whole issue with Smith at the time was transition training costs.

Nowhere in Smith’s April 30, 1959, letter to Quesada — or the table accompanying it, showing how long it took American pilots in different age brackets to qualify on a 707 — does the word “safety appear. The correspondence does show, however, that pilots age 55 and above took an average of 30 hours and 10 minutes to become proficient on the 707, while those ages 42 and 43 took 13 hours, 25 minutes. Those between 45 and 49 made the transition in an average of 22 hours, 12 minutes.

Quesada accepted Smiths pitch without question. He put together a hand-picked team of physicians, mostly from federal agencies, showed them Smiths data, and asked that they endorse his proposal to impose a retirement age of 60 for captains and 55 to qualify for jets. The panel discussed “all facets of aging from the medical point of view and agreed to both proposals, according to minutes of the June 3, 1959, meeting obtained by The Public i. Two panelists even argued that age 50 was a better upper limit for shifting from props to jets.

The FAAs legal staff was unimpressed. At a staff meeting in the agency general counsels office, the lawyers concluded that the data were “an attempt to provide scientific or factual justification in a subject area in which such justification is not possible,” according to minutes of the Oct. 9, 1959, discussion.

Medical support was suspect

Quesada himself knew that the medical support for age limits was suspect. In a letter that year to the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, at the time president of the University of Notre Dame, he confided: “There exists at present no sound scientific evidence that airline piloting, or any other aeronautical activity, becomes critically unsafe at any given age.”

Nevertheless, Quesada said he was concerned that those functions “do undoubtedly become less safe with increasing age beyond some ill-defined point.

Armed only with these vague medical generalities and hunches, and without calling for public hearings, Quesada issued the age-60 rule that December. Some airlines, notably Delta, believed that older pilots were perfectly adequate and objected to the mandatory age cutoffs. Quesada compromised somewhat, dropping his proposed rule for an age-55 ceiling for pilots learning to fly the new jets.

The age-60 rule was not the only Quesada directive that benefited Smith. At the same time American was moving into the jet age, it also was purchasing a large number of Lockheed Electra mid-range, turboprop airplanes.

Some of the Electras early flights proved deadly. At certain speeds, the engines buried in the wing would vibrate out of control, and a couple of the first planes even ripped apart in mid-air.

Aviation safety specialists at the time urged Quesada to ground the plane until fixes were made, which could have taken a couple of years. For American, which had the largest fleet of Electras, that would have been a financial disaster. So in a controversial ruling, Quesada, who in the early 50s had founded Lockheeds missile division, allowed the planes to continue flying, but at reduced speeds until the improvements were made.

“The Lockheed Electra (ruling) was a huge favor” to Smith, Woolsey said.

Smith did not forget the favors. When Quesada retired a year after his controversial directive on mandatory retirement, he joined the American Airlines board.

Smith died in 1990 at age 90 and Quesada three years later at 88.

Violation of the public trust

Samuel D. Woolsey obtained a law degree after he was forced to retire from his job as a United captain in 1993, when he turned 60. Having done extensive research on the origin of the FAA rule, Woolsey describes Quesadas fiat as an “inexcusable exercise in bureaucratic misconduct” and a “reprehensible violation of the public trust.

At least three of Quesadas successors as FAA administrator have publicly questioned the merits of the rule, though only after they left office. One of them — President Clintons first administrator, David Hinson — makes it clear that he couldnt do much about the rule. In an interview with The Public i, Hinson, the FAAs chief from 1993 to 1996, acknowledged that the age- 60 rule “in many ways . . . was arbitrary because there wasnt enough medical evidence at the time to support it.

But when Hinson suggested modifying the rule with superiors at the Department of Transportation, “they didnt want to talk about it. He said the Clinton administrations first transportation secretary, Federico Pea, “would have accepted my recommendation to overturn the rule.

“Federico was not the problem,” Hinson recalled. “It was higher up. He said it was clear that the White House staff did not want to touch the issue.

“Its not a medical issue,” Donald Engen, the agencys head in the mid-1980s, told The New York Times two years ago. “The younger guys want the older guys out because they want to be captain. Captains draw the bigger pay. Engen was killed last year in a glider accident.

And in an administrative proceeding, former administrator T. Allan McArtor wrote the Transportation Department last November that the age 60 rule was “an arbitrary standard.

“I have never seen any credible evidence to support the mandatory requirement for U.S. airline pilots to retire at age 60, McArtor told the department. “In fact, the opposite is true.”

Pilots group contributes millions, endorses Gore

The Air Line Pilots Associations political action committee chipped in $1.3 million, mostly to Democrats, in the 1992 election cycle that ushered Clinton into the White House. During the most recent presidential election, the union contributed $1 million, again mostly to Democrats, and endorsed Vice President Al Gore. Union president Duane Woerth told his membership in August that Gore “stands with us on every single issue . . . critical to ALPA.”

Meanwhile, bills to boost the cutoff age to 65, introduced in the 106th Congress in both the U.S. House and Senate, sat in committees without movement and like all unpassed legislation, died when that Congress ended in December.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, managed to attract seven co-sponsors to his bill, including Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. In the House, Rep. James Gibbons, R-Nev., drew 10 co-sponsors. But bumping up the pilot retirement age was not a high priority on anyones agenda, including the sponsors, Capitol Hill staff members said.

The Senate bill had been idle since the Commerce Committee held a public hearing in July; the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee didnt even convene to hear testimony.

Pilots in favor of overturning the rule suggest that the immobility has something to do with political contributions by the Air Lines Pilots Association to powerful Republican committee chairmen and other legislators. The union supports the age 60 rule.

Federal Election Commission records show that ALPA donated $5,000 to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., in the last election cycle, and $1,000 to House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa. (Shuster also received $3,000 from the Allied Pilots Association, American Airlines union, which also supports the age-60 rule.) Indeed, as of June 30, ALPA ranked as the 21st-biggest contributor to members of the Senate Appropriations and Commerce committees from 1995 to 2000, at $140,500 and $86,000, respectively.

But Donna Murray, Murkowskis aviation legislative assistant, said the senator would reintroduce the bill in the new Congress.

“Were getting to a critical point where we dont have the numbers of required pilots. We think there was adequate data on over-60 pilots performances, but the FAA didnt study that data,” Murray said in an interview. “As far as the unions looking at it are concerned, its a money issue, a membership issue. And it may be for those who still want to fly [beyond 60], but so what? So long as theyre able and healthy, they should be able to.”

Through ALPAs efforts, the Internal Revenue Code was amended in 1986 to allow retired-at-60 pilots to withdraw up to $130,000 annually, without penalty, from their retirement funds a provision that does not exist for any other section of the population. Supporters of the rule fear that if the forced retirement age is increased, the special withdrawal allowance would be reduced to roughly $99,000.

Pilots, FAA cite safety

The pilots association and the FAA use similar language to defend the age ceiling and argue that their position has everything to do with safety. They dont mention money.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee in July, ALPAs Woerth described the mandatory retirement age as “an effective air safety regulation. The panel was investigating whether the rule was hampering the ability of airlines, especially commuter carriers, to meet the pressing demand for skilled pilots.

The FAAs L. Nicholas Lacey, director of flight standards service, told the senators that the cutoff at 60 represents the agencys “best determination of the age when a pilots “overall cognitive and performance capabilities may begin (to) jeopardize safety.

The safety argument would be compelling, if it were true. The doctors who endorsed Quesadas ruling 41 years ago used mortality data that indeed showed that folks 60 to 64 in the general population become incapacitated and, yes, die, more frequently than those between 55 and 59. But they didnt review medical data specifically on pilots. Active pilots, according to studies both prior and since the ruling, are a much healthier population. And in the U.S., since the ruling, the average lifespan has increased by 7 1/2 years (to 74) for men, and by three years (to 76) for women, according to a former Social Security chief actuary.

Indeed, in the history of American commercial aviation, only two airline accidents have been linked to sudden pilot incapacitation, in 1962 and 1966, obviously with captains under 60. In both instances, though, the co-pilots werent even minimally qualified to fly the planes. Today, the FAA requires that co-pilots be fully capable of flying a plane if the captain becomes incapacitated. Airlines also have adopted a set of cockpit procedures that trigger a change of command in the event of a sudden, or even subtle, pilot incapacitation. And Dr. Robin Wilkening, an aviation safety researcher and chief resident in occupational medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said that simulator studies conducted after copilot qualifications were strengthened calculate that the risk of an accident occurring because a captain suffered either a heart attack or stroke during a critical point in flight—takeoff and landing—is one every 400 years.

All commercial pilots regularly undergo medical and flight simulator tests, with the frequency and rigor increasing with age. The process has the effect of washing out pilots who dont meet the standards.

As a consequence, studies based on statistics compiled by the FAA itself are virtually unanimous in agreeing that airline pilots nearing age 60 have lower accident rates than their younger colleagues except, in some studies, those in their mid- to late 30s. Studies that include airline pilots over age 60—limited to flying commuter planes since the 1959 ruling—find that the over-age gang is safer even than those approaching 60. As of 1999, though, even commuter pilots carrying more than 18 passengers have had to retire at 60.

FAA statistics involving 450 air carrier incidents between 1990 and mid-1999 show that the nearly 2,000 over-60 pilots then flying commuter airlines had a lower accident rate than those in all other age brackets except those between 35 and 39.

NASAs Aviation Safety Reporting System, which since 1976 has been maintaining and analyzing the voluminous repository of anonymous reports of safety-related incidents, says that older pilots are doing just fine. The system contains more than 300,000 reports of commercial and private aviation incidents. “We do not have any ASRS data that supports the contention that the performance of over-the-age-of-60 pilots could be detrimental to flight safety, said the systems program manager, Vincent Mellone.

Questions about those certified

Though inflexible on the age 60 rule, the FAA over the years has certified airline pilots who have “engaged in drug abuse and trafficking, criminal sexual conduct, [and suffered] psychosis, phobic conditions, depression and other psychiatric conditions, according to a petition to the FAA filed last April 12 on behalf of 69 current and former airline captains seeking exemption from the rule. The veteran captains have undergone far more extensive medical and cognitive tests than the FAA requires for younger pilots, but the FAA denied the petition in December. It has never granted such exemptions to U.S. airline pilots. The petition was filed by the Professional Pilots Federation, an organization representing captains who want to keep on flying after age 60.

The petition asserts that the FAA, as of December 1998, had approved medical certificates for 509 commercial pilots who had suffered myocardial infarction; 458 who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery; 50 with heart valve replacements; 42 with kidney transplants; 94 with epilepsy; 1,193 with alcoholism and 1,260 with diabetes.

Because medical tests have become increasingly sophisticated as predictors of incapacitation, there has been little controversy over the medical exemptions. Indeed, those exemptions may help mitigate the shortage of qualified aviators.

But the FAAs exemption practices are not foolproof. The FAA grants exemptions to alcoholics knowing that some are destined to relapse, and has granted those exemptions even after a second or third relapse. Five years ago, Southwests Capt. Gary Higby had to save another Boeing 737 on approach to the Oakland, Calif., airport when his co-pilot, who was at the controls for the night-time descent in low visibility, let out a “curdling scream and froze in his seat, Higby recalled. The co-pilot jammed on the right rudder and the jetliner, barely 900 feet above ground, responded with a 35-degree roll. Unable to push on the left rudder because his co-pilot was in a “catatonic rigid state, Higby said he was able to retrieve a level flight only by increasing the thrust on the right engine. He landed the aircraft after flight attendants finally pried the co-pilot from the seat and dragged him to the galley.

Higby said that doctors at the hospital where the copilot was rushed after landing concluded that the second-in-command was an alcoholic who had experienced delirium tremens during the landing. Later, Higby said, the airline discovered that he had had four arrests for drunken driving and had admitted to being a binge drinker.

Pilot shortage looming

Not surprisingly, some aviation safety specialists warn that as commercial airlines scramble to hire new pilots from a diminishing supply of experienced airmen and women, the FAA’s 41-year-old rule to jettison veterans after they reach 60 might be endangering the flying public.

Dr. Wilkening at Johns Hopkins is one of them. She contends that data on the performance of pilots as they age, much of it commissioned by the FAA, shows that older pilots have fewer accidents than younger ones. Therefore the age cutoff “is potentially detrimental to aviation safety by removing the most senior command pilots from the very positions that demand the most experience,” she said.

These senior command pilots are being replaced by less-experienced captains. “There’s a shortage of fully qualified command pilots,” said Hal McNicol Jr., who runs Flight Crews International, Inc., the nation’s oldest pilot placement agency. “That’s what’s really hurting.”

Moreover, airline growth has been so rapid that, if continued, the major and national carriers might need to double the number of pilots over the next 10 to 15 years, according to a recent study by the Air Transport Association of America. The organization’s member airlines are responsible for transporting more than 95 percent of all passengers and cargo traffic in the United States. Meanwhile, the FAA's rule will force the retirement of 36,000 pilots from the pool of major and regional airlines in 10 years, and a further 19,600 by 2015.

Already, the number of certified pilots nationwide has dropped by nearly 80,000 to about 635,000 over the past decade. Some 138,000 of them fly for the regional and trunk carriers.

While problems loom on the horizon for major carriers, the regionals are already feeling the pinch. Their managers complain that annual attrition rates are running between 60 and 100 percent.

In reaction to the shrinking supply, hiring standards are dropping. For instance, American Airlines’ regional carrier, American Eagle, now hires copilots with only 1,000 hours of experience, compared with its previous minimum of 1,500 to 2,000 hours. Great Lakes Aviation, which operates as United Express out of Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis, dropped its minimum flight hours for new recruits from 1,500 to 750.

And larger carriers have lowered educational requirements, or are no longer doing background checks, aviation experts say. Southwest Airlines no longer requires pilots to have certification to fly Boeing 737s at the time of application, though they have a six-month window with which to be certified before they can start flying for the airline.

In Europe, meanwhile, virtually every country in 1999 dropped the mandatory retirement age of 60, which they had adopted after the FAA imposed the rule. Many countries, including Israel, now fix the ceiling at 65. Some nations, including Britain, New Zealand and Australia, have no age limit at all.

Arieh Oz, a 64-year-old El Al captain, said that his Israel-based airline concluded that 60-year-old captains are “too young to retire.”

“When my father died at age 63, he was really an old man . . . I am now 64 and nine months, and I’m retiring in three and a half months. But I’m starting my life. It’s only the beginning,” he said.

Oz said that 60 of El Al’s 400 pilots are over 60, and none has become incapacitated or caused a mishap.

“We in El Al think that things have changed in the world,” he said.

One of those changes is that the skies are a little safer over those countries where the “old folks” keep on flying.