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Gremline Flight Safety Report: The Bold and The Old by Ann Welch OBE

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the gremline digest —  the bold and the old

The Bold and The Old
by Ann Welch OBE


Ann Welch was an outstanding pilot, recognised throughout the world as a leading light in recreational flying. There was another side to Ann’s aviation background that she could seldom be persuaded to mention. She was one of the highly skilled and very brave ladies who flew unarmed war planes around the United Kingdom during WW2, delivering them to operational units in support of the fight against Germany. These delivery flights were usually undertaken solo, without any crew to assist the pilot. Ann’s log books record flying not only single engined fighters like Spitfires and Hurricanes but include large bomber aircraft in RAF service, with a good selection of other types now long forgotten. She delivered her last Spitfire very shortly before she herself was delivered of her first daughter. Ann was an outstanding glider pilot and instructor and led the development of gliding as a sport in the United Kingdom. She received many international awards in recognition of her contributions to aviation. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) awarded Ann the Lilienthal Medal in 1973, their highest award, followed by their Gold Medal in 1980 “for contribution to developing four air sports – gliding, hang gliding, paragliding and microlight flying.” She was also awarded the OBE.
      Anyone who had the good fortune to know Ann Welch will remember a very attractive lady with a quiet voice, a ready smile and the rare ability to make complicated subjects easy to understand; the mark of someone with a deep knowledge of their subject. She did not suffer fools gladly. She was a kind person and sent me a very funny message when I was awarded a FAI Diamond for gliding. Ann died in December 2002, aged 85. I had the honour to know Ann as a friend. She taught me many things about aviation. She is still greatly missed by those who knew her. She wrote the following article ten years before her death. The message is still valid today.



Perhaps the biggest difference between young and old pilots is that the keen young pilot grabs at every opportunity to broaden his or her experience – to try something new – while the old pilot, as he adds to his years, flies more and more only in the way, and to the places, he wants. Unconsciously, he is narrowing his skills and becoming increasingly out of practice in those aspects of pilotage for which he now has less interest such as stalling, engine failure exercises, or flying in rough air.


The Bold …
In his enthusiasm for trying anything new (widening horizons) the young pilot may do some things which later in life he realises were plain stupid, like setting off into approaching bad weather, indulging in low aerobatics, or flying with another pilot even younger and more foolish than himself so as to get another new type in his log book; but on balance, broadening pilotage horizons is essential to becoming a good pilot.
      In some countries, USA is one, the minimum age for a glider pilot is 14. It used to be 14 in Britain until an accident, which had nothing to do with age, happened to an air cadet and the CAA raised it to 16. In the UK and other countries the minimum age for powered aircraft is 17 but a person is not adult until 18, and in some of the States not until 21. It is all a bit illogical when you think an American glider pilot at 15 could well be flying a 24 metre span glider weighing almost 1000 kg and capable of accelerations that any racing driver would envy. The nearest the British can get to this is a 16th birthday first solo, and there are several every year. Statistically very young pilots have a good safety record. These words are not a plea for political logic but to look at the advantages and disadvantages of learning to fly when very young.


Perhaps the greatest assets the young enthusiast has are time and the ability to be entirely single minded. Apart from school or college there are few ties or commitments; someone else cooks the food, pays the house insurance, and goes to all the committee meetings. His entire concentration is on flying. Information is sopped up like the proverbial sponge, and better still, remembered. He is physically untiring, has a good appetite and sleeps well. Youthful disadvantages include no sense of mortality, over-confidence, and lack of imagination due to shortage of life’s experiences. These disadvantages will eventually be overcome by discovering situations which thoroughly frighten – ‘Please God let me get down in one piece’; provided disaster does not intervene. A better way to success is a really good instructor. If good enough there would be no reason why a youngster could not start flying as soon as the controls can be reached properly and the necessary strength or weight is present. One hang glider pilot began flying when aged 12, was world champion by 19, and again at 21.
      With very young pilots the instructor’s skill not only has to cover the usual teaching techniques, but to look after the ‘go for it’ approach of youth and guide it wisely. Pre-flight checks are an example. Unless the young pilot is firmly encouraged to take a pride in doing this properly and EVERY TIME it is quite likely to be skipped if attention is diverted by an admiring friend. As skill develops so will the fun of cutting things fine; something else the instructor must appreciate.
      One problem faced by any learner pilot today is the almost paranoid desire of authority to keep him safe; but to be safe a pilot must understand what is dangerous and, to do this, he must see danger at first hand. This is why SAR helicopter pilots are safe. With the young pilot the instructor needs to spend quite a lot of flying time demonstrating what can go wrong, and how to cope with it, and not only teaching how to do things right.
      So how old should the instructor be? If ‘senior’ he may have become reluctant to show the young pilot around in those areas where judgement mistakes will matter. If too young he may not have fully acquired the wisdom it is essential to develop in the student. Apart from this the instructor must be someone the young pilot respects and wants to copy; another reason for the instructor to be really good.



… and The Old

In due course the young pilot, if properly taught and if his enthusiasm remains unflattened by life’s problems, will become the old pilot. He will find among his contemporaries other old pilots of a different sort. Those who, with their children finally off their hands and a bit of spare cash, have taken up the flying they had always, or often, hoped to do. They would be perhaps between 40 and 60 when they started. They also need a good instructor. Their problems include weakening short term memory, business or other important matters competing for mental attention and, even if very fit, the possibility of becoming tired sooner than expected, sometimes associated with sleeping more lightly. Put all together, they will learn more slowly. The instructor will need more patience and should never exhibit signs of boredom. What the older learner may possess, however, is a great deal of useful related experience, which the instructor should exploit so that the new learning can be associated with something already well understood. The instructor should take trouble to discover such other skills – car driving, boat sailing, skiing, diving, mountaineering. All of these contribute to understanding – you can stall a boat’s sail or exceed your Vne on skis. The difficult middle-aged learner is the one who has never dabbled in any activity requiring co-ordination, assessment of speed, or quick decision-taking in unexpected circumstances. It is very difficult to turn such people into safe and happy pilots, and the instructor has to be particularly perceptive and patient. He may even have to devise lessons to help develop, for example, a proper feel for moving in more than one direction at the same time.


As time passes every pilot will find himself thinking about how much longer to continue with what may have been a lifetime of flying. There are some bureaucrats who would like to set a fixed age, but this would achieve little except frustration as most older pilots themselves take the decision to stop before it should become essential. There are a few pilots who are, in fact, ‘too old at 40’ when no arbitrary age limit could sensibly be applied.
There are many reasons why older pilots take the decision to stop flying, including:

* A developing health problem. Not one which would preclude them passing the medical – or which they are not prepared to put to the test and risk failing – such as slight arthritis, fatigue etc. Or someone else in the immediate family has a health problem.

* So many calls on their time that they fly less often. When younger they would have fitted in the flying somehow, but now they suddenly realise months have passed – they go faster with age – since last becoming airborne.

* Disinclination to go for a periodic flight check because they do not like the young instructor, or might not like his criticism.

* Increasing dislike of being controlled in the air by the demands of radio, particularly if much of their flying had been done in the years before nattering with ATC became the norm.

* When they do fly it is less enterprising. They do not suddenly get the urge to have lunch at Le Touquet, or soar their glider on a long cross-country; so their aviation becomes mostly local, even boring or pointless.

As an instructor I used to find myself giving check flights to older pilots who had not flown for some time. Usually they were perfectly competent at circuits, but had not done anything enterprising for some years, such as a map reading cross-country; but in their minds they could still do it well. In fact they did not do so because their out-of-practice flying made the total work load higher than they had anticipated. There is only one advice for such people; regenerate your flying or stop. To any pilot who knows that in his time he has been extremely good, there is no satisfaction in becoming less and less capable, particularly as the inevitable result will be some undignified accident such as taxiing into somebody’s wing tip, perhaps due to declining peripheral vision.
      There are also people who learn to fly at the age when long-experienced pilots are giving up. Some say ‘stupid old fools’, but is this necessarily fair? Provided they are physically fit, mentally agile, and have a good instructor such people can obtain immense pleasure from such late flowering flying. But only if they have almost nothing else to do. The elderly beginner will fly safely only if he or she spends all possible time out on the airfield, glider launch point or hang gliding hill so that enough associated knowledge of the aircraft, weather problems, practical aerodynamics and handling are fully absorbed. Starting to fly late in life should never be an occasional spare time relaxation with shared concentration. The risks to this stranger to the air are too great.
      Unfortunately, today, too many bold and old pilots have one problem in common; the lack of opportunity – and cash – to do enough flying. Only when aircraft handling becomes completely instinctive, is the brain free to think, plan, and refine what the hand is doing.



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