The House aviation subcommittee approved a measure yesterday that would lift the mandatory retirement age of commercial airline pilots from 60 to 61 1/2.

By expanding the group covered by the Federal Aviation Administration ages rules to employes of communter airlines, the measure would force the retirement of some pilots over 61 1/2 who now employed legally.

The measure, which passed by voice vote, would direct the National Institutes of Health to carry out a study within a year to determine whether an age limitation is warranted medically but does not include the authorization for such a study -- needed before the NIH can begin.

Pilots older than 60 would be required to pass medical examinations at least four times a year, but more often and more comprehensive tests if the secretary of Transportation determines they are required "in the interest of safety."

The measure is sponsored by Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, and several other members of it and the Select Committee on Aging.

At issue is an FAA rule, adopted in 1959, that prohibits persons who have reached the age of 60 from serving as a pilot of a commercial airliner, although they are not barred from serving in other capacities with the airlines, such as flight engineers.

According to FAA Deputy Administrator Quentin S.C. Taylor, the rule reflects extensive study of the aging process and of the safety hazards that could result from using airline pilots age 60 or over.

He said the studies, which are still valid, indicate there is a progressive deterioration of certain physiological and psychological functions with age, that significant medical defects attributable to this deterioration occur at an increasing rate with advancing age, and that sudden incapacity due to such medical defects becomes significantly more frequent after reaching age 60.

Pilots seeking the change have argued that the age of 60 for retirement is arbitrary and discriminatory and fails to take account increased medical knowledge about aging. Further, medical research demonstrates that pilot health is significantly better than that of the general population, they argue. They add that ability, not age, is what counts in the safe operation of a sophisticated aircraft.

All of the major airlines except Frontier and Republic oppose change in the age-60 rule. United Airlines told the subcommittee it would refuse to continue to let pilots over the age of 60 fly, whether Congress changed the rule or not.