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Should older pilots undergo stronger fitness tests?

Cockpit death of a pilot prompts questions about qualifying medical exams.

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What qualifies an older pilot as fit to fly?

The sudden death of a 60-year-old pilot during a Continental Airlines flight over the Atlantic on Thursday is causing some to take a second look at the new extended age limit for commercial pilots – and others to question the quality of medical exams pilots undergo.

In 2007, Congress raised the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots from 60 to 65, after pilots' unions argued successfully that demographics show people are living longer, healthier lives.

All pilots over age 40 must undergo a medical examination every six months. Such requirements are not unusual for people working in fields such as public transportation, law enforcement, and other jobs for which physical and mental fitness are important to public safety.

The death of pilot Craig Lenell, who a doctor traveling on board said apparently died of a heart attack, did not result in a safety crisis. Two co-pilots, who are trained to deal with such circumstances, landed the plane uneventfully at Newark International in New Jersey.

But his age and the circumstances of his death are causing some analysts to question the wisdom of extending the age limit for commercial pilots. Still others, including some pilots, say the issue isn't age but the quality of the medical exams required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"The bigger issue is one of fitness to fly. There is no integrity in the medical examining system," writes a commercial pilot in an e-mail. "We go in every six months and look at the same eye chart with the same doctor, [give a urine sample,] and hook up to an EKG [which measures the electrical activity of the heart] and answer the same question, 'Any changes?' You say, 'Nope,' pay your fee and get your ticket punched."

The FAA and other commercial pilots defend the exam as stringent and thorough.

"The FAA exams are very thorough, and they do a great job in finding things when they are wrong," says DJ Frost, an international commercial pilot who asked that the name of his airline not be identified.

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