The National Transportation Safety Board has released its final report on a deadly plane crash in May 2019 in St. Simons Island.
The small plane crash killed the pilot, who was identified as Roger Crane, 80, of Bluffton, South Carolina.
According to the NTSB report released April 20, Crane had flown cross-country with St. Simons Island as his final destination. He was on approach to McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport on a gradual descent when, for reasons unknown, the Cessna dropped 400 feet in four seconds and went off radar. Investigators said Crane lost control of the plane for undetermined reasons. The plane crashed into a wooded area about 5 miles from the airport, and evidence at the scene indicated the plane was on a near-vertical descent when it crashed and burned.
The final crash report echoes what had already been described by witnesses in 911 calls.
“It was pretty much just straight down with high RPMs,” one caller can be heard saying.
Crane had high blood pressure and high cholesterol and took various medications, the report shows. Because of the fire, investigators were not able to determine if those conditions contributed to the crash.
Crane held a commercial pilot license and had flown over 4,60 hours, including 378 hours in the Cessna. But under federal regulation, he couldn’t have flown commercial airlines.
“The government has long decided that 65 is it for flying passengers," said News4Jax aviation expert Ed Booth.
In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration changed its rules, making it easier for older pilots to get and keep their pilot’s license. Although they must still pass regular flight tests, the rule allows using only a driver’s license as proof of good health.
How old is too old when it comes to flying?
Booth said loss of control knows no age boundaries, but older pilots may have decreased motor skills and reflexes.
“Certainly we can establish that one’s cognitive function, it’s not the same at age 80 as at age 50. An important skill as a pilot is really knowing when to hang it up, knowing when to quit," Booth said. “If we’re talking about just general statistics, when a pilot gets up into the 80s and doesn’t recognize certain limitations, there can be trouble.”
Booth said there isn’t an updated or compiled FAA breakdown of age groups associated with small plane crashes.
In the mid-2000s, the Associated Press analyzed five years of federal pilot licensing documents and aviation crash data and found pilots in older age groups were significantly more likely to be involved in a crash. The study was published in the New York Times.
Booth said, anecdotally, that trend still stands today. One factor: Older pilots can afford planes that may be beyond their capabilities.
“This gentleman who we’ve been talking about was flying a complex airplane," Booth said. “It’s a high-performance airplane that has to be treated with a little more care and caution. ... As you get older, I suppose, you’re more predisposed to making these types of mistakes."
Many pilots will defend seasoned aviators, saying wisdom and experience far make up for any age-related cognitive and physical decline.
“I’ve seen that myself," Booth said. "I know 85- to 90-year-olds who are better pilots than a lot of 30-year-olds.”
Experts, including Booth, acknowledge about three-quarters of aviation accidents are caused by some kind of pilot error, which includes slower reactions that can come with age.