All pilots are capable of making mistakes and the human factors safety checklist helps us decide if we are fit to fly or not. We can’t usually tell by looking at someone if they are fit to fly or not, we rely on pilots making an honest assessment themselves:
Illness – being ill is likely to reduce your mental capacity and distract you,
Medication – those drugs might make you a bit woozy,
Stress – under stress at work? Too hot? Thirsty?
Alcohol – best avoided.
Fatigue – did you sleep well last night? Been working hard all day?
Emotion – have you just had a blazing row with the duty instructor?
All of the above factors affect your cognitive capacity and ability at the start of the flight. Working hard during a long flight will increase your fatigue levels you are likely to lose some alertness and awareness of developing situations. You may become lazy and forgetful when making flying decisions. You may tune out and ‘rest’ your mind for a bit.
When you are presented with a sudden crisis, you may panic, obsess about a single issue, and ignore other factors that need your urgent attention. You may forget your training and revert to basic instincts, eg raising the nose to clear the trees but forgetting to close the airbrakes.
The elephant in the gliding human factors room is age. Starting to learn to glide in later life is a challenge. As you get older, it is harder to learn new skills, you forget things more easily, your reactions are slower, your eye sight isn’t as good as it used to be, your hearing is usually worse, your mental and physical agility declines, and at some point your spatial and situational awareness deteriorates. Everybody is different, and some people remain sharp and fit for decades, but in general most of us are in some kind of decline after the age of 25.
Low hours solo pilots are vulnerable to making mistakes. This is in part due to lack of experience and knowledge, and also because the flying itself is harder work and more fatiguing than it would be for an experienced pilot. We know that older pilots take longer to learn to fly, it may also be that this fledgling stage also lasts longer for them.
What can we do to maximise members flying, fun and safety?
Older learners who are struggling to gain a consistently high standard of flying need to practice with an instructor -- a lot.
The frequency and quantity of flying needs to be high to make progress, as skills can be lost in the gaps between flights.
Older people can get fatigued more easily than they would have done when younger – make sure you are at your best before going flying.
Enjoying longer two seater flights as P2 may help build up capacity and experience, and take some of the pressure off from being scrutinised by an instructor.
We need pilots to accept that if you are taking the sport up in later life, you may never reach a consistently safe standard. Our instructors have a duty of care to make sure members don’t injure themselves. We should be open about this with prospective new members.