Sept. 21, 2011 — -- When a World War II-era stunt plane crashed in Reno last week killing nine people and injuring dozens of spectators, some questioned whether the 74-year-old pilot's age was an issue. Should grandparent-aged pilots be allowed to fly airplanes?
The United Flying Octogenarians think they should. The group -- with 942 members spread across the United States and Canada as well as members in Australia, Brazil and New Zealand and other countries -- has one condition for membership: pilots must have flown some kind of aircraft after turning 80.
"There's bound to be some association between some people and saying, 'Hey, what are old guys doing flying around in the sky? They're dangerous,'" said Charlie Lopez, a pilot on the board of directors for the group. "But it's important to know that there are rules and regulations in place for such things."
While some may argue 80-plus is too old to drive a car, much less fly, Lopez noted that all pilots are required to participate in flight checks, medical examinations and regulation refreshers at various time intervals, depending on the type of license they hold. He also pointed out that stunt flying, like the pilot in the Reno accident was attempting, is more dangerous than the type of flying most octogenarians participate in.
Photos from the Nevada crash appear to support accounts that a mechanical issue may have been to blame after pieces of the plane's tail began falling off rather than pilot error.
"There's an old adage in flying -- there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots," Lopez said. "The experience and the silver hair make up a lot for the diminishing of reflexes and other things that come along with old age."
Lopez, 84, was named after Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, the year Lopez was born. He has been flying for almost 50 years and has no plans to stop.
"Old age has its shortcomings but, in flying, the experience and re-training help us to ward off those [shortcomings]. When the time comes, we all know when it's time to hang up the goggles and the leather helmet, which nobody uses anymore," Lopez laughs.
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"When you're this old and you've been flying all these years, who wants to listen to you besides someone in the same boat?" asked 87-year-old Bill Webber, the bulletin editor for the group, who has been flying for more than 50 years.
In 1960, Webber bought a plane for $2,500 and decided he wanted to learn how to fly. He still works as a manager for stock portfolios, but flying remains his passion.
"In 1960, the technology was not there. We were doing navigation by the ground and very minimum technology, but today, my goodness, they do everything for you," Webber said. "The airplane has an autopilot. You take off, you point it, and it practically lands itself."
Webber has clocked 3,854 hours in the air and believes he is a safer pilot that some younger pilots because he still flies frequently and gets a medical examination every year.
Bert Bratko, 90, is the group's secretary and treasurer. He lives in Massachusetts and flies several times a week. Sometimes he pilots Angel Flights, charitable trips that fly patients to hospitals from home, and sometimes he flies with friends for what he calls a "$125 hamburger," which is when they fly to another city for lunch.
"I'm 90 and still flying. As long as I live… that's what keeps me going," Bratko said. "Sometimes when I don't feel great or feel sorry for myself for being old, I'll get up and fly. It gives me a nice feeling of satisfaction."
Lopez echoes the sentiment when asked why he loves to fly.
"If you ask that question to any pilot, almost invariably, they'll say it's the freedom," Lopez said. "There certainly is a feeling of being high above the earth and perspectives change. People in cars become little ants that you have no relationship with. Landscapes and mountains and cloud formations pop out and it's another world. It's very exhilarating."
Lopez's wife still makes the sign of the cross every time he flies.