When Pilot Proficiency Is Not Enough

 - June 4, 2021, 12:41 PM
While flight crew members may be proficient according to regulations, they should view their mandatory training sessions as opportunities to better prepare themselves for irregular and unexpected events. (Photo: FlightSafety International)

Pilot proficiency does not necessarily equal preparedness according to D. Richard Meikle, Flight Safety International’s executive v-p for safety and regulatory compliance.

Speaking this week during the online Business Aviation Safety Summit, he cited several accidents where the pilots were technically proficient according to regulations, but otherwise not prepared for the emergency situations they encountered. In the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 over the South Atlantic, the pilots on the controls at the time were not trained in high-altitude manual flight or high-altitude stall recovery, as was required after the Airbus A330 encountered icing conditions which ultimately led to an unrecoverable aerodynamic stall. In last year’s crash of a Sikorsky S-76 which claimed the lives of former basketball star Kobe Bryant and several others, while the pilot had 8,577 hours in his logbook, including 1,250 in that specific helicopter type, only 75 of those hours were instrument flight time. Of those, the vast majority were in the simulator, leaving approximately only 7 hours of actual instrument flight time. The helicopter experienced a CFIT crash after the pilot became disoriented in deteriorating weather conditions.

“So how do we improve safety if legally proficient pilots are unable to prevent bad events?,” asked Meikle.  “We need to focus on safety and satisfy the regulations in the process, not the other way around.” He noted that while many pilots have the mindset that simulator training or a check event is a regulatory event, “the reality is it should be viewed differently…it’s a safety event that meets the proficiency and regulatory requirements in the process.”

With pilots of all sectors experiencing reduced flying activity due to the chilling effect on travel from the Covid pandemic, many are relying on hopes that perishable flying skills will simply come back to them. Meikle noted that while only about three percent of all landing approaches are unstable, “sadly about 97 percent of them continue to a landing, and there’s that ‘I can fix it’ or “I can make it work” kind of mindset that starts to creep in there,” adding that needs to change. “It’s got to be that mindset that when you get to that decision point, if you are not meeting criteria, you go around.”

Meikle urged pilots to view mandatory training not as simply a regulatory requirement, but as a safety event and an opportunity to practice for the unfamiliar and the unexpected. He explained that aviators should use their simulator time to explore automated systems they don’t regularly use, or perhaps even fully understand, as well as train for emergency situations such as inadvertent IMC or handling “startle event” situations.

With new training methods such as virtual reality, slowly easing into mainstream usage, Meikle said there may be generational differences as to how readily accepted such devices are, and training providers must be cognizant of the learning curve required. “It’s not a one size fits all,” he said.