Ageless Sky—Part One

Skydiving is a high-risk sport that relies on quick thinking, fast reflexes and the kinds of things people in their 50s and up can no longer count on. Their risk of an accident increases with age. At some point, you have to know when to throw in the towel. Let’s face it: Older people shouldn’t be skydivers.


Recently, accidents involving older jumpers began generating concerns. Was there a trend emerging, particularly with skydivers who had been involved in the sport for a very long time? As an older—albeit infrequent—jumper and journalist with lots of full logbooks and several decades in the sport, I agreed to take a look. After all, it makes perfect sense: Everyone knows that people slow down with age. It’s inevitable, right? How hard could it be to research a few figures and break the news gently to the silver-haired crowd that includes many of my old friends?
Well, as it turns out, a lot harder than you’d think.

First Stop: Big Data
Nobody may have more data on age-related decline and safety than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A 2009 study of 500-plus drivers over 84 years old holds the first set of clues. These drivers reported that a lot of their friends had quit driving already for various reasons. Those who were still driving showed no impairment related to their driving abilities, save for a trend toward hearing loss. Nearly half who had quit driving did so due to lack of confidence or on the advice of others. If anything, some of the research suggests that people quit driving while they still possessed the full suite of faculties necessary to operate a motor vehicle safely.

“People over the age of 84 who are still driving have generally high levels of physical fitness and mental functioning, although some have some sensory loss.” —National Institutes of Health

So, the NHTSA study concludes that older drivers self-select and that older people may not hear very well (but they apparently still listen to younger people—which may come as a surprise to anyone dealing with aging parents). In fact, much of the research cited in the study indicates that older drivers are—mile by mile—among the safest. It points out that statistics to the contrary had not been adjusted for miles driven, where it is known that people who drive less frequently have more accidents than those who remain “current,” as we say in skydiving. The more you drive, the better you drive.

Next Stop: Aviation
So much for older drivers being more dangerous, but that’s just about driving a car. How about the flying environment, which probably more closely resembles what we do as jumpers? The Air Safety Institute, a division of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Maryland, published a report, “Aging and the General Aviation Pilot” in 2013. The authors parsed through a lot of information collected from AOPA’s own records on general aviation and the much bigger database on airline industry pilots. The conclusion? No conclusion. Everybody ages differently. The researchers commented that training and review coupled with better judgment—the wisdom that comes with age—more than offsets the observed decline in physical or mental crispness.
The Air Safety Institute study also indicates that the memory loss broadly associated with aging is readily overcome with training, preparation and the use of checklists. In the first of two sections following the results of the study, ASI provides recommendations for older pilots that make sense for all pilots, regardless of age: Stay on top of your health, train and review, fly often, use checklists, keep up on the best equipment you can afford, eat well and don’t fly tired or hungover.

Zooming out, the National Transportation Safety Board—which investigates accidents for the Federal Aviation Administration--finds that despite some loss of function traditionally associated with aging, older pilots make fewer mistakes and have fewer accidents. Again, in the NTSB data, the influence of currency appears: The more often pilots fly at any age, the fewer problems they encounter.

The Physical Side
Driving an increasing number of studies about aging is an entire generation of people who have bucked authority and the status quo all their lives. The baby boomers now include those in their late 50s to early 70s. They grew up in pursuit of independence, youth and physicality. Like a lot of other things, they never bought into what their parents believed about aging. Seventy is the new 50 … that kind of thing. They might be right. According to research both empirical and scientific, we control much more about how we age and what we can continue to do as we get older than we ever thought possible. Active minds stay fresher and active bodies stay healthier. Those who want productive golden years traveling and enjoying their grandchildren can usually do so just by eating well, maintaining correct weight and engaging in regular, moderate exercise. That’s hardly news anymore.

On the cutting edge, we find research suggesting that intense exercise, slightly adjusted for the increased recovery times that come with age, can extend high-end performance for athletes into their 70s and beyond. A great, well-cited entry into this rabbit hole comes from the sport of bicycle racing. The book “Fast Over 50,” published last August by 70-something endurance-athlete coach Joe Friel, makes and supports one definitive statement: Work out hard and last longer.

Putting It on the Road
Yes, there were some high-profile fatalities in the last couple of years that involved aging up-jumpers. Some pierced the heart of the sport and made us cry. But standing back, it’s a small sample space. That’s always the case with skydiving: Bad canopy piloting being the exception, the relatively small number of incidents with little in common makes it hard to identify trends from which to derive effective recommendations and policy. So perhaps it’s too early to draw conclusions about dangers to aging skydivers or especially to start aiming policy in their direction.

“Much of what science ‘knows’ about the indicators of aging probably doesn’t apply to you. You are much less likely than your ‘normal’ neighbor to contract the lifestyle diseases of aging. You aren’t normal—and that’s good. You’re continuing the active and vigorous lifestyle of our ancestors. You’re an athlete.”—Endurance coach Joe Friel in “Fast Over 50”

Still, that’s not the end of the story. Underneath the conclusions, especially for the specialized groups in aviation and sport, lies the rule of exceptions. If we were talking about the population as a whole, advice on fitness for skydiving and watching for age markers would likely be more in keeping with expectations. With more than half of the U.S. population weighing in at obese and much of the remainder under-exercised and overindulged, skydiving past a few tandems may be ill-advised for some beyond age 40. Ours is a demanding, high-risk sport with bad results waiting for the unfit or unprepared. But skydiving’s lifelong hard core more often identify with athletes.

They are the multiple-record holders, the perennial medalists, the tandem and AFF elite, the crossover extremists who skydive some weekends, as well as the in- or out-of-industry careerists who have maintained their several-to-many-hundreds of jumps per year over the decades and remained fit enough to pull it off. Not listed? Then perhaps you’re pledging membership to an at-risk group. That’s a separate discussion altogether.

Next Month: Part two of “Ageless Sky” discusses skydiving’s statistics and what they can tell us about the aging of the skydiving population in general.

About the Author
Kevin Gibson, D-6943, a former managing editor of Parachutist and has more than 10,000 skydives.


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Robert Hayden
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 22:49

I stopped at age 51 when I noticed my reactions had slowed a bit. I figured if I could not perform as fast as I did I was not safe.

Rob Hayden


Fri, 04/21/2017 - 09:42

I think maybe the risk of something really bad happening could go up, but I definitely don't think it's worth looking too much into. Heck, my dad still skydives at 55 without trouble.

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