They found in a study of 3,306 commuter plane pilots that those with more than 5,000 hours of flight experience had less than half the risk of a crash than less experienced counterparts. Results are published in the May 15 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.
During the study period, the pilots flew 12.9 million flight hours and had 66 aviation crashes, yielding a crash rate of 5.1 per million pilot flight hours. Crash risk remained stable as the pilots aged from their late 40s to late 50s. One hundred and five study subjects died, 27 of whom were fatally injured in aviation crashes.
"Federal aviation regulations prohibit airline pilots from flying beyond the age of 60, but the relationship between pilot age and safety had never been rigorously assessed," says Guohua Li, M.D., Dr.P.H., lead author of the study and professor of emergency medicine and of health policy and management. "Performance in most flight-related tasks such as decision-making, tracking, takeoff and landing does not differ significantly between older and younger pilots. The lack of an association between pilot age and crash risk may reflect a strong 'healthy worker effect' from the rigorous medical standards and periodic physical examinations required for professional pilots."
Among the pilots studied by Li and colleagues, 99 percent were male and 69 percent were ages 45 to 49. On average, the pilots had 9,749 hours of total flight time and 287 flight hours in the six months prior to the start of the study. The majority of pilots (86 percent) did not have any health problems although 68 percent required corrective lenses for distant or near vision.
Researchers tracked their exposure to flight and safety performance from 1987 to 1997, using records from the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Death Index as guidelines.
"Our study indicates that chronologic age by itself has little bearing on safety performance," says Susan P. Baker, co-author of the study and professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. "What really matters are age-related changes, such as health status and flight experience."
The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging. Other authors were Jurek G. Grabowski, Yandong Qiang, Melissa L. McCarthy and George W. Rebok.
Li, Guohua et al, "Age, Flight Experience and Risk of Crash Involvement in a Cohort of Professional Pilots," American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 157, No. 10, pages 874-880.
Johns Hopkins' Department of Emergency Medicine
American Journal of Epidemiology
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