Giving Up Flying…Again

Martha Lunken makes friends with her favorite twin, one you’d never call “light.” Courtesy Martha Lunken

In “When to Give Up,” an article from several years ago, I recommended giving serious thought before every takeoff about how to handle an emergency. Rather than trying for a “miracle save,” it was usually better to accept the unpleasant certainty of bending some metal but probably surviving.

The classic example is losing an engine on takeoff in a light twin at max gross weight at a high-density-altitude airport. While the book says it’ll fly, you aren’t the uber-proficient test pilot who generated those numbers—and your airplane ain’t what it used to be when it came off the assembly line. So, it’s statistically better to chop the good engine and put it down off the end of the runway but into relatively benign terrain. In a single, the decision involves—depending on your altitude—landing ahead after loss of power instead of attempting the “impossible turn” back to that temptingly safe piece of concrete behind you. But you have to consciously remind yourself about these possibilities and your reaction—in advance.

Here I’m thinking about another time to “give up.” Knowing when it’s time to recognize, accept and deal with aging—yours, not your airplane’s—and deciding if and when it’s time to gracefully hang it up, has to be one of the most difficult challenges in a flying career. I’m becoming something of an expert here, which is hard to believe because everything still works, and in my head and my heart, I feel the same as I did 50-some years ago. OK, I do seem to be shrinking, and my hands—well, I’ve always admired weathered, gnarled hands adjusting throttles and props, and now I’ve got ’em.

Anyway, if you’re blessed with a love of airplanes and also blessed with a long life, you’re eventually going to be faced with the dilemma of when to stop flying airplanes…at least, flying them alone.

I’ve done a number of reexams (709s, after the FAA form number) with “senior” general aviation pilots who’d come under FAA scrutiny because of an accident or violation. Some were still amazingly sharp and adept, easily leaving me in the weeds. Others raised genuine concerns about the mental and/or physical capability of this pilot who had been flying for a lifetime but was now involved in some kind of trouble.

I’ve told you about a few: watching an ugly approach and “arrival” of a Cessna 182 full of passengers flown by an irascible old guy I knew. Trying to handle it as expeditiously as possible, I discovered he didn’t have a valid medical (because of heart problems). Curiously, after initially calling me the “bad guy,” his airport buddies said they’d “known he was losing it” but were reluctant to say anything.

Classic airplanes seem to go on ­flying forever—but not so with “­classic” pilots. Courtesy Martha Lunken

Then there was the elderly guy who flew into Cincinnati’s Lunken airport for his reexamination and wandered around the airport, lost and unable to communicate with the tower. I had to physically help him out of the airplane when he arrived on the ramp, in obvious pain, quite deaf and with a speech impediment. Instead of doing the check ride, I called the operator who’d rented him the airplane and told them to send somebody to collect him. A sad, embarrassing end to a long flying career.

And there was the legendary man who had built a family-owned airport 50-some years before and had taught hundreds, maybe thousands, of people to fly. On a reexam of his CFI privileges in a Piper J-3—after he ended up in the corn with a pre-solo student—I found he had some unique and charming ways of teaching coordination. Beyond sight of his home field, he was hopelessly lost. Right or wrong, I passed him with a reluctant promise from his sons that he’d fly with only licensed pilots. A few months later, I’d learned they’d grounded him; to their credit, somebody flew with him around the patch in a Cub every day until he died.

And then there was an aging man flying a Beech Bonanza from Florida who blundered into Charleston, West Virginia. When the FAA inspector who met him found he had no medical, the old guy agreed to park the airplane. Instead, he blasted off without talking to the tower and ended up at Lunken.

And another mishap from an aging aviator: flying IFR but disregarding ATC’s altitude assignments—by thousands of feet. He insisted it was the logical thing to do; he had to stay out of the clouds because “everybody knows there’s ice in there.”

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

Heartbreakingly, a dear friend—a brilliant lawyer, entrepreneur and pilot who built a wildly popular local FM radio station—fell to the same fate. After years of flying with him in a succession of his beloved Aero Commanders, I finally told him we simply couldn’t do another flight review…and why. But he was a beautifully stubborn old thing, so I finally called his lawyer brother and successfully made the case of why he had to stop flying alone. It broke my heart—more so when he died of Alzheimer’s a few years later.

The man who owned ’72B before me, a retired professional pilot, decided to quit and sell his airplane after somehow spooking himself on a solo trip out west. I don’t think that’s unusual, but others hang on until something unfortunate happens. Especially before BasicMed, you’d think aviation medical examiners would catch the problem, but that doesn’t always happen. An AME once called me at the flight standards district office, saying: “You guys need to ground this man. He shouldn’t be flying, but I couldn’t find a reason to deny his medical.”

There isn’t—and shouldn’t be—just one solution. But think about being “your brother’s keeper” and have the guts to talk to an aging pilot friend if you notice obvious degeneration. For yourself, maybe decide to schedule an annual proficiency check with a good instructor or take somebody with you, especially on long flights. Maybe limit yourself to VFR or “soft” IFR, such as a climb to get on top, and forego night flying. Know that your insurance carrier will likely impose some of these restrictions if you don’t—or you’ll be looking at much higher premiums.

While most of us know when it’s time to quit, there are hard cases (you’re reading words written by one). A friend at the ’drome and I talk flippantly about it and make silly pacts: “Launch me toward the nearest thunderstorm or mountain over unpopulated territory, or launch me toward Europe with an hour’s fuel.” But I think at 35 minutes, I’d have serious regrets.

Well, any of these would mean the waste of a perfectly good airplane and leaving an ugly legacy: “She used to be quite a pilot… She just didn’t know when to quit.”

This story appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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