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Current & confident: flying again after the pandemic

If flying a plane was like riding a bike, safety departments and aviation authorities wouldn't be scrambling now to come up with an efficient strategy to bring pilots back in the cockpit after more than a year of little to no flying. Unable to get enough flying hours and maintain a close connection with the flying community over a prolonged period, thousands of pilots are now up to the challenging task to retrain and build enough confidence for safe flying. 

Capt. Tanja Harter, ECA Technical Board Director, is a training and licensing expert, who participated in multiple discussions and meetings in the past months, looking at the issue of pilot skills fade due to the pandemic. She shares with us the industry insights as well as personal coping strategies.  



No take offs, no landings. Many pilots haven’t seen the inside of an aircraft in months, some – in well over a year.  Can we claim that all pilots are suffering some level of skills decay due to the ongoing COVID crisis? 

Capt. Harter: Already early on in the pandemic, the aviation industry – EASA and ICAO included – was aware of the danger of a skills decay among aviation personnel. There is a wealth of research on human performance limitations, showing that skills and knowledge fade over time without experience or exposure. Even in regular times, pilots need to dedicate efforts to stay up to date with regulatory or procedural subjects, as well as to maintain the much-discussed manual flying skills. 

Without going deeper into the scientific background, when it comes to flying, we are all in a 'use it, or lose it' situation. All pilots who are not flying will be affected to a certain extent by a skills fade. But how much and which skills will fade, depends on the individual situation. 

We need to be mindful of the fact, that skills decay is not a personal weakness. It is a normal human performance limitation. And it will affect not only pilots, but all aviation personnel. The whole aviation industry is facing this decay: ATC, ground handling, cabin crew, preparation, dispatch. Which adds to the complexity of situation, which we are currently in. But we really need to remember: The pilots did nothing wrong, the pandemic forced them out and it is normal for them to be losing some of their skills. 


Is there a concern in the industry about the situation?

Capt. Harter: The industry is certainly carefully monitoring and adapting to the situation. All this is unprecedented – we have no scenario to fall back on, no past experience, our regulations were not written for a pandemic and the situation allows for hardly any predictability. Add to this, that some alleviations and exemptions on for example license validity and recency were introduced at the beginning of the crisis. While it all made sense then, those may have exacerbated the situation and created more obstacles to a smooth transition back to flying. 

There is concern that no regulation would solve the issue. All airlines and pilots will eventually be compliant with the training requirements. But only those who go above and beyond would tackle the issue effectively. 


Which skills are most likely to decay among pilots? 

Capt. Harter: It is important to note that when we say "skills decay" we don't mean just manual flying skills. 

In fact, manual flying skills seem to be one of the group of skills that come back easily to pilots. Safety department studies show that when pilots get back in the simulator they can fly the ILS and the 1-engine inoperative departure profile relatively easily. But it is when they have to deal with the complexity of the operations, which require a broad range of skills, pilots struggle. 

The decay of cognitive skills and competencies, knowledge and procedures, operational issues or practical skills like hand-eye coordination or radio skills are some of the examples I have heard by industry leaders and safety professionals in the past months.  But it varies greatly and we should be mindful to the specific situation of the individual. As recently a panellist on a Skills Decay webinar said on returning to flying after 3 years: “I could fly the ILS approach easily. But could I find the light switch? No”. We should all be mindful that skills decay will affect us differently. 


Does previous pilots experience matter?

Capt. Harter: I think there is a broad consensus that the more proficient the pilot at the beginning of the crisis, the easier it will be to come back. Research has indicated that people with long-held skills and knowledge were better able to retain their skills when they had a high level of learning and proficiency at the start of the furlough period. This is one of the key lessons that we need to take away also for the future: the more proficient pilots at all times, the more resilient the aviation system will be. Pilot training is a wise, invaluable investment for any operator. 


Is there a hard formula to get ahead of the skills decay or stop it? 

Capt. Harter: I wish. Sadly, there isn’t. But there are a lot of things that can be done to ensure a smooth transition back to flying. Both the operator and the individual pilot share a great responsibility.

For airlines, the importance will be to go beyond the regulatory mandated minima. Remember, it is an unprecedented situation. It is not like a pilot returning from sick leave after a couple of months. It is thousands of pilots, simultaneously facing skills decay, with the entire aviation system around them challenged in the same way and an operational environment that has changed, introducing more complexity.

First, airlines will need to accept that no pilot will be as good as one year ago. This is why operators will be wise to start the requalification ramp up early to avoid a situation where not sufficiently confident pilots have to be put in a high-workload environment prematurely. Operators will also need to ensure pilots have access to sufficient simulator time. Even if that goes way beyond the regulatory requirement. Remember – all individuals will be affected in a different way. At the same time, airlines can also help by keeping operations as simple as possible and not introduce changes at this time, to allow all crew to get back safely in the familiar rhythm.  And of course, adding sufficient buffers in operations and turnaround times to allow pilots to ease back into the routine, will help immensely.

Operations departments can help by having dedicated and condensed information prepared, such as a summary of changes and specific COVID procedures. Training departments can also help by tailoring training to the needs of the individual and perhaps even including the changed operational environment in the retraining. They can also make sure that whatever tools and solutions are available, they are also accessible to pilots: e.g. course footprints, access to the simulators, flat panel trainers, software solutions. But also by understanding the pressure that pilots are under and putting them at ease through the training process. The focus should be on retraining the pilots, not on rechecking.


From your observations, so far, how are airlines adapting to this new situation?

Capt. Harter: I can’t speak for all airlines. But when I look around and speak to industry experts and peers, I do see a lot of positive examples – airlines offering additional sim sessions, using the sim for regular line flights, observational flights or flights under supervision, peer learning groups, virtual learning programs, crew pairing always with one current pilot (and keeping enough pilots current to enable that). There are some very good initiatives, which will hopefully inspire all to go the extra mile and continue with measures through the ramp up.


Can pilots do something themselves to keep current & confident?

Capt. Harter: That is a good question. Being current – that covers the legal part and the majority of pilots will smoothly go through the recurrent training. Being proficient – that's the purely training part. But to really come up with good decisions during planning, and a good flight – pilots need to have confidence, self-confidence.

I like to compare flying and pilot training to high-level sports. All athletes are proficient, they are experts in their fields. But being among the best, a medallist, is quite often decided by the mental model, the mental preparations and in believing in one's capacity. In a high-risk environment like flying, believing in oneself, knowing what you are doing, being proficient and confident, that is a high-level safety issue. If you are not flying for a year, or even longer than that, where should that confidence come from? 

 So, pilots need to invest some personal effort to slow down the skills decay and build up confidence.

My personal advice is to use all tools available to build confidence. For example, pilots can try to familiarize themselves with any changes introduced during the time they were out, do chair flying and mental preparations or use low-level devices (flat panel trainer) before the refresher SIM, engage in discussions in chat groups, have regular update calls with fleet captains, if these are possible. There are also some very basic but important things – like reading in English – that could help pilots retain their skills or maintain as current as possible. 

And it shouldn’t stop when you’re back in the cockpit. After returning to flying, you need to be mindful of a certain degree of skills fade and perhaps practice some ‘defensive flying’. Take the time, don’t get tempted by shortcuts, intersection take-offs, also CDA approaches, single engine taxi and other procedures that might add an additional layer of complexity. Now is not the time for them. 
Pilots usually have high expectations about their own performance and quite often are the worst critics. But we also need to learn that right now scaling down just a bit on the nice-to-haves, means being able to concentrate on the must-haves. 


Are we on the right path? What lessons are we learning? 

Capt. Harter: We are already seeing the outlines of one important lesson: that the starting level is crucial. If the target for pilot training is just to be compliant with the bare minimum, then the skills fade and decay will be drastic and on a large scale. If the target is to be very good and proficient, then you have a much higher buffer, where you can have skills fading but you are still above the minimum. That is something that our industry needs to look at. Proper training for the profession rather than the ‘quick, dirty, cheap’ bare minimum. 

At the same time, the industry is still very much focused on a one-fits-all-approach. This crisis is showing that there needs to be more creativity in how to address certain areas and issues.

And of course, going for the minimum on one aspect and pushing to the higher limit on another – and I am thinking here maximum FTL and minimum training – is stretching the system to the limits. Creating a system that has capacity and buffer should be our ultimate target.