- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

LOS ANGELES

At 50, Philip Semisch learned to fly. He took aerobatic lessons on his 60th birthday. When he turned 70, he flew gliders. Another aviation milestone followed just a few years later: He crashed.

The retired Army officer and manufacturing executive from Skippack, Pa., was alone, piloting a small Decathlon plane in September 2002. It bounced as he tried to land, twice. As he took the plane back up for another landing attempt, he failed to clear a wall of trees and crashed.

Mr. Semisch walked away with bruises and a few stitches.

“I feel very comfortable flying and did immediately after my accident,” he said. “I take it very seriously. I don’t fly in bad weather. I’m careful.”

Despite such confidence, Mr. Semisch’s Pennsylvania accident was one of hundreds in recent years that illustrate a trend within the general aviation industry: A disproportionate number of crashes among older private pilots.

After a rash of plane crashes involving older pilots in Southern California, the Associated Press analyzed five years of federal pilot-licensing documents and aviation crash data. The analysis showed that older pilots were in a significantly higher percentage of crashes than their representation among all pilots.

Fatal crashes also are proportionally higher for older pilots, according to the AP’s examination of Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board data.

The findings come after an FAA rule change in September 2004 made it easier for graying pilots to obtain and keep licenses to fly certain smaller planes. Although they still must pass regular flight tests, the sport pilot rule eases medical restrictions.

It allows pilots to fly using only a driver’s license as proof of good health, a change that the FAA and pilots say would be of particular benefit to older pilots. Pilots whose licenses were revoked for health reasons — such as a history of heart problems — may be recertified after a medical exam and are not required to undergo future checkups.

The general aviation industry is graying, as the average age of private pilots rose from 43 in 1995 to 47 at the beginning of last year.

Experts widely acknowledge that about three-quarters of all aviation accidents are caused by some kind of pilot error, including slower reactions that can come with age.

“We don’t see too many aviation accidents that are related to a medical cause. The increase in accidents [with age] may be due really to cognitive factors,” said Federal Air Surgeon Jon Jordan, the FAA’s top doctor.

Many pilots interviewed for this story defended aging aviators, saying wisdom and experience more than make up for any age-related forgetfulness or decline in motor skills.

“The statistics don’t support planes falling out of the sky,” said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which claims more than 400,000 members.

There has been only one major jetliner accident in the U.S. in the past three years — in December at Chicago’s Midway Airport — but crashes of small airplanes have become nearly routine. On an average day in 2005, there were four general aviation accidents, with at least one accident-related death.

More than 500 people have died in general aviation crashes during each of the past three years. Historically, about 90 percent of all plane accidents involve general aviation. By contrast, more than 30,000 people die each year in car and truck accidents.

In Southern California, small planes plummeted into apartments or homes four times in 2003 and 2004. Nine persons were killed in those crashes, including the four pilots, all of whom were 50 or older.

Many older pilots said they already monitor their health and don’t take unnecessary risks.

“Being prepared prevents accidents, and doing proper training prevents accidents,” said Mr. Semisch, the pilot who learned to fly at 50 and survived a crash two decades later.


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