Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel where I shared ideas and experiences about pilot skill fade. It was very interesting not just to hear about the experiences of others but to receive some brilliant tips from trainers and experienced pilots on how to deal with pilot skill decay, and how the industry is looking to tackle it.
So here are my thoughts on the experiences I brought to the discussion, and some of the takeaways I had.
After a long period of not flying (in this case going to renew my A330 rating), I was most concerned about my handling. I knew I was going to be super rusty and that my general proficiency was going to be a lot lower than the bar I usually set for myself. After all, this is the one thing you cannot practice directly outside of the flight deck. I hadn’t flown the A330 for a good five years and actually, hadn’t flown at all for the best part of a year. On top of that, I was coming from the A380, which is an awesome aircraft for pilots - it is lovely to fly and does a lot for you. But having not consistently practiced manual flying, your hand-flying competence might be a little less than what it should be.
To prepare, I tried to practice my handling through “armchair” flying. It may sound silly and a cliché, but I find it really helps. I know I’m going to have to fly a V1 cut, so I sit and think through the actions and the calls. Not just in my head, or in theory, but in a tactile way - what will my foot be doing, what will my eyes be scanning, where will my hand be reaching. What are the physical actions I will be doing, what will I be saying, and what will I need to be thinking about?
Once in the simulator, I found though that honestly, you don’t forget. A lot of the muscle memory is still there and as you settle in and focus on your scan, it returns quickly and to a decent level. A large part of that comes down to mindset - the confidence side. You do get that little doomsday voice in your head whispering, “you’re totally going to mess this landing up!” But, the skills are still there. With a good scan, good competencies backing you up, and reminding yourself that you've done it before and can do it now, there is far less skill fade than you might think there would be.
A poll on pilots suggested that many see a drop in proficiency levels regarding workload management. Workload management is the prioritization of tasks, the weighing of critical and less critical actions, and time management. It ties in so much with situational awareness, problem solving and decision making, and is hard to practice when not directly in those dynamic situations that flying brings. We can talk through the theory, but without real-time pressure, it is hard to reproduce.
But we can work on our competencies outside the flight deck and develop a strong foundation that will help you become much more resilient once back in the seat. Things like procedures, memory items, threat-based briefings, and limitations can all be practiced at home. Sit in front of a mirror and say them out loud. Connect with a colleague or pilot friends and run through them. And get your partner to sporadically yell a memory item at you when you're busy. There is nothing like hearing ""UNRELIABLE AIRSPEED"" when you're carrying your hot tea to breakfast in the morning to induce a bit of startle factor.
I am lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) that my husband is a pilot on the same aircraft type I pilot. We might sound like the world’s most boring couple to invite to a dinner party, but we have “What If” chats. “What would you do if you were over the North Pole and had an emergency descent?” “What would you do if all the toilets got blocked on a 15-hour flight to Sydney?” These chats let you practice your decision-making, situational awareness, and knowledge. And they help get you into that pilot mindset again. It isn't just about reading up on what TDODAR means - it is putting that into practice in a discussion, like the discussion you would have with your co-pilot during an actual event like one of these.
My rating renewal went well in part due to some awesome instructors who had a strong focus on using evidence-based training. But it was also because I went in looking forward to it because I was well prepared.
I recommend staying in touch with colleagues and keeping up to date with the industry. Whether this is through chats, webinars, joining groups or organizations, volunteering... something that keeps you connected, keeps you in the community, and keeps you feeling that you are learning and gaining experience (even if it is outside the flight deck), is so important. Important for your skills, for your pilot mindset, and for your overall well-being.
I’ve had a few situations in my career where I’ve had to deal with skill fade, or from not having the same level of proficiency as I had previously. I went from flying a very old type of aircraft - the Avro RJ85, which I was very comfortable and familiar with - to a type rating on an A330. You go from being comfortable and familiar and knowing what you’re doing to suddenly not. Being outside your comfort zone leads to you question your skills and wonder what you might or might not remember - and it’s the same after not flying for a while, too.
Confidence is a big part of the answer. Not only meaning that you know what you're doing, but also understanding that you are going to make mistakes and that is ok. I go in with the acceptance that I might not be as proficient, but I will still be safe. That is what I will aim for. If I make a mistake, I make sure I correct it, learn from it, and then move on. This for me is so important to remember.
Then there is the pure enjoyment of returning to flight. The first sims are the ones where you really do have the excuse to disconnect from everything, be a bit messy and just enjoy being back flying again. I was nervous, and my lovely Captain (husband) forced me to disconnect. That was absolutely the best thing to do. I was able to practice, fly, and enjoy doing what it is pilots love. There is nothing better for your confidence and your skills than that.
There are a lot of initiatives out there to help pilots. Major authorities acknowledge the risks involved with taking aircraft out of long-term storage, and a lot of guidance on this has been given to operators. Likewise, operators are focusing on training that highlights unreliable airspeed as an event, which seems to be prevalent at the moment.
Critical skills and knowledge can fade due to inactivity, or simply through lack of exposure to certain events or areas of operation. But remember, you can take steps to sharpen your skills and get back in the air.
welcome aboard the new airside
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