# What is the “optimal” age of a fighter pilot?

Fighter pilots are always portrayed as young, fit men (and woman), in their 20s and 30s - and most of the F16 pilots I know are that age.

However, today someone, who is over 50 years old, mentioned that he was asked to be an F22 pilot. His background is astonishing, flying in multiple "wars," and he was even the commander of the Thunderbirds in F-16s for a while.

Even though this man clearly has the background of the stereotypical F22 pilot, would age be a problem? Wouldn't someone whose body could take more abuse be better suited for that type of assignment?

It depends on what you mean by "optimal".

For a dogfight, the optimal age is probably 30. At this age a person has lots of experience, but still maintains their full mental agility, ability to calculate and energy. In a dogfight your ability to think fast and calculate your next move is the critical factor.

For combat missions, however, 40-45 may be more optimal, because experience, judgement and knowledge becomes more important. Knowing when to attack, how to attack, how to make your approach, how to do your mission setup, and many other things become the product of long experience. For complicated missions in enemy territory, it is better to have someone with long experience, rather than a young hotshot.

Once a person hits about 60-65 years in age, their mental ability to calculate declines significantly. Nevertheless, experience can make up for it in some instances. For example, at age 63 Vassily Smyslov was a candidate for the world chess championship, an amazing accomplishment for a person of that age. Emanuel Lasker took 3rd place at Moscow 1935, a premier chess tournament, at the age of 66, which was practically a miracle. These are exceptions, however. In general, once a person gets into their 60s, their mental ability deteriorates. Therefore, the age 50-55 can be considered the maximum age at which experience and judgement can be used effectively in high speed combat situations.

Complex Mission Role

To investigate my basic assertion that optimal age for a combat mission (not air supremacy) pilot is 40-45 I investigated pilot astronauts. Since astronauts are selected from large numbers of candidates and have short careers typically, it is a safe assumption that their average age is what NASA considers to be ideal. According to NASA Technical Report 1304 the mean age for all selected pilot candidates is 39.90 years old. If we assume a pilot has a 5-year career, then my guess for optimal age matches perfectly with NASA's selection choices. This may be considered strong evidence that for a pilot executing complex missions, the optimal age range is, indeed, 40 to 45 years.

Air Supremacy Role ("dog fighting")

To determine the optimal age for air supremacy ("dog fighting"), if we had access to the USAF's (or other country's) exercise data over time, we might get an idea since we could calculate an ELO rating for each combatant and identify to the top exercise fighters of all time. Unfortunately this kind of data is not released as far as I know, probably because the armed services do like naming or identifying particular soldiers. I do strongly suspect, though, that if such a study was done it would show the "best in the world" air supremacy pilots would be clustered around the age of 30. To check this, I tried summarizing statistics from WW2 German fighter pilots. Using birth data on 470 German aces I generated the following plot:

In this chart, the bar chart is the total number of aces grouped by date of birth. The blue dots are the average number of victories for that birth year group. What this chart seems to show is that performance is remarkably consistent between the ages of 18 and 32, with a slight advantage to the younger pilots, but then declines significantly. The 1922 group was significantly skewed by Erich Hartmann. If we eliminate him as an outlier, the top group is the class of 1920 which would have been between the ages of 19 and 25 during the war. This seems to show my original guess was wrong, and that dogfighting is dependent more on quick reflexes and fast thinking than on experience, which hands the edge to the young.

• @TylerDurden - while making an attempt to quantitatively assess the impact of age on fighter pilot performance is commendable, I think the conclusions you are drawing are somewhat spurious. First, only studying fighter aces offers little glimpse into the generalized performance of fighter pilots. That is to say, only a small percentage of combat pilots score kills and, of those, only a small percentage become aces; in other words, your sample is unlikely to be representative of the fighter pilot population as a whole. – habu Apr 24 '15 at 11:03
• Secondly, only looking at kill totals and averages is unlikely to allow you to draw the correct conclusions. Kill totals are inadequate because they work heavily in favor of those pilots who had more opportunities to engage the enemy. Straight averages alone are also insufficient in comparing outcomes between samples (even assuming that samples are comparable in all respects other than your chosen grouping criteria) because they ignore outcome distribution – see the Hartmann example. – habu Apr 24 '15 at 11:04
• Ignoring all other considerations, should you wish to compare differences in fight pilot productivity at different ages, you would, at a minimum, need to perform a one-way ANOVA (post-hoc testing too) of kill frequency grouped by actual pilot age at time of record. – habu Apr 24 '15 at 11:04
• Third, in only looking at pilots’ birth years, many other contributing factors are swept under rug. In order to properly assess fighter pilot performance you would likely need to resort to considerably more complex modeling techniques and also include factors such as pilot combat experience (Vietnam-era USAF studies show that a pilot’s effectiveness and chances of survival increase dramatically once they survive their first 10 combat missions), opposition strength, wealth of scoring opportunities, quality of training, equipment, support infrastructure, leadership and tactics, etc. – habu Apr 24 '15 at 11:05
• Please do not view my comments as an indictment of your efforts; you’ve obviously put quite a bit of time and thought into them, but the conclusions overlook some very important considerations. I also apologize for the run-on comments. – habu Apr 24 '15 at 11:05

I can't directly tell you what's "optimal" because I don't know what that means, but the US Air Force does provide some basic demographic information so we can indirectly see what they consider to be a good age mix for fighter pilots. I used their report tool to get data on fighter pilots1 and it shows this breakdown:

17-24 :    43
25-34 : 1,341
35-44 :   968
45+   :    83
Total : 2,435


This isn't very fine-grained, but on the other hand we can immediately see that your example of someone over 50 is really at the extreme end of the curve: only 3.4% of fighter pilots are over 45.

Of course, this only applies to the USAF and it doesn't tell us anything about other branches of the military or about what other countries do. But we can say that the USAF appears to consider 25-34 to be the 'optimal' age: 55% of their fighter pilots are in that bracket.

(I should add a small disclaimer that I know nothing about the military, so hopefully I didn't make any stupid mistakes in pulling or interpreting the data.)

1 To be specific, the search criteria I used were: Active Duty Air Force only (excludes Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and civilians); officers only; AFSC 11FX specialty (fighter pilot) only. The data is from April 2015.

• This says nothing about the optimal age. It only defines the current age distribution in the US AF, which is not necessarily optimal. Military promotions and assignments are based on many factors, including family considerations, that have nothing to do with whether the personnel is of the "optimal" age. – Tyler Durden Apr 23 '15 at 14:54
• One issue - At some point, you get promoted or are kicked out of the air force. As you reach higher ranks, there are fewer slots for you in a flighter squadron, because you won't see generals flying anything normally. – cpast Apr 23 '15 at 14:55
• Also, different roles or tasks have potentially different optimal ages, as I point out in my answer, so giving blanket statistics tells nothing about the role breakdown. – Tyler Durden Apr 23 '15 at 14:58
• @TylerDurden As I said, I know nothing about the military. But, these numbers are for the 11FX (fighter pilot) specialty only, and I find it hard to imagine that the USAF would designate someone as a fighter pilot for purely organizational or seniority reasons. Even if they do, the numbers show that the USAF has created an organization where most fighter pilots are 25-34; whatever their reasons are, the USAF is presumably smart enough to create an organization that fits their needs, which strongly suggests that for the USAF at least, 25-34 is the preferred age. – Pondlife Apr 23 '15 at 15:00
• By age 45, pilots are becoming eligible to retire, and plenty do. That doesn't mean that they couldn't be amazing fighter pilots for many more years, simply that they have other options available. Airline pay + retired pay >> AF pay at that point. – Ralph J Apr 23 '15 at 16:48

In addition of Pondlife's excellent answer, there are a few points I would like to mention.

• There is no specific age at which a person no longer remains a fighter pilot. It relates more to that individual's physical and mental capabilities.
• In air force/military, when a person reaches senior ranks, there are other responsibilities which are added.
• When a person is no longer a fighter pilot, it does not mean that they cannot fly an F-16, F-22, or any of the airplanes they used to fly. It just means that they are not combat ready anymore. They can still teach to fly or fly at air force demonstrations etc. In fact, the air chief marshal of a country (long retired from combat flying) leads the air force squadron on their annual ceremony.

From the numbers Pondlife mentioned, it does appear that the optimal age of about 95% of pilots is in fact in 25-44 range, but many are able to keep the abilities beyond that age range.

Interesting views and topic. I landed here by chance. I'm 46 now and a couple years ago I flew an F-22 into combat (I was older than 41 but younger than 45). They needed someone with special experience due to the delicacy of the operation. I say as long as you are healthy and pass the physicals etc, I can see a 53 year old combat pilot but by 55 you should hang up your combat hat. I consider myself an experienced combat pilot. Yeah I use combat vs. fighter. At 60 you should be flying your personally owned aircraft.