FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The secret to staying young? Stay high.
So say the United Flying Octogenarians, an international flock of about 1,200 private and recreational pilots who are age 80-plus — and refuse to be grounded.
Among the 12 UFOs, as they affectionately call themselves, who gathered for a ceremony in their honor in Lauderhill, Fla., on a recent Friday, there were two Harvard graduates, a retired lawyer whose family once owned the Cleveland Browns, a member of two previous presidential administrations, and a recipient of the Order of the British Empire.
And now they all can add one more accomplishment to their lists. The UFOs received the Turn Back Time award from the Forest Trace retirement center, for challenging aging stereotypes. Each pilot collected a statue of an airplane flying over the globe, a small clock embedded between its wings.
They were pharmacists, engineers and, yes, men who spent their careers in aviation. Almost all of them have been flying for at least 60 years, first taking to the air in college or during military service.
What binds them: the inexplicable thrill of flight. “There is nothing like it, when the weight shifts from the wheels to the wings,” said Justus Campbell, 82, of Palm City, Fla. An Eastern Airlines pilot and instructor for 32 years, he has experienced that feeling in everything from a Cessna to an Airbus — and plans to keep doing so as long as he can fly safely.
The group, founded in 1982 by 31 pilots past their 80th birthdays, hosts fly-ins around the world.
Four planes piloted by UFOs flew in to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport from around the state for the presentation, including president Don Newman, an 89-year-old from the Clearwater, Fla., area.
Newman, who was a B-17 bomber instructor during World War II, taxied his V-Tail Bonanza around like he was at the mall looking for a parking spot, before emerging from the cockpit perfectly dressed in a beige suit jacket and airplane-patterned tie.
“It was a good flight. The Tampa tower just insisted I vector over the airport,” he apologized to those waiting.
The UFOs said people often are surprised to learn they have a license to fly. Like almost all other pilots (except those who work for commercial airlines), they can keep their certificate active as long as they can pass regular medical exams and skills tests. Retesting periods vary according to the type of license.
Among about 617,000 active pilots certificates, about 4,817 are held by people age 80 or older, according to the Federal Aviation Administration — about double the number from a decade ago. About a third of them have licenses that allow them to charge for their services.
The fact that people are living longer and healthier even has affected commercial airline pilots, among the few professionals with a mandatory retirement age. In 2007, a federal law went into effect that lets commercial airline pilots fly until they are 65, instead of 60, as long as they can pass the twice-yearly medical tests required for all ages. Those older than 60 also face more frequent proficiency checks.
The UFOs recently have become intrigued by what exactly it is keeping them all airborne, said Charles Lopez, of Miami, a retired international businessman who now works in aerial photography.
“We figured we were an elite group. We all are over 80 and still flying, which can be a complicated activity. Is there some common factor?” said Lopez, 85, the group’s vice president.
So the UFOs distributed a survey last year, asking members about their health and social habits, then turned it over to Purdue University in Indiana, Lopez said.
While there aren’t any scientific conclusions, some similarities emerged, said Lopez. “We’re in good health. More than 50 percent of us went to university. And most of us have some sort of alcoholic beverage every day.”