Safety Standdown: Reduced Flight Ops Degrading Pilot Proficiency

 - June 1, 2021, 2:32 PM

Reduced flight time resulting from COVID-19 has degraded professional pilots’ performance, according to Paul Ransbury, CEO of training provider Aviation Performance Solutions, and the problem will be “an issue for us for a while,” he said at Bombardier’s virtual Safety Standdown in May.

“It's really unprecedented for a large body of pilots to go this amount of time without flying or having an alternative way of staying current,” Ransbury said in his online presentation, “Manual Flight Operations - Proficiency Fallout due to COVID-19.” He cited operations declines ranging from 60 percent initially to recent 40-48 percent deficits over pre-Covid levels.

Bolstering his findings, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University research of the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) anonymous voluntary reports filed by pilots during this period found “items identified most readily with a proficiency-currency issue increased by a thousand percent, a tenfold increase” in the aftermath of operations reductions, Ransbury said.

Manual flight control skills are most affected, including transition from automated to manual flight control; energy state management; and crew coordination. Pilots with little experience “are the most vulnerable” to loss of this proficiency, he said, while those with “a substantial amount of experience can get back up to a very high level of proficiency in a relatively short period of time.”

These skills were lagging well before the pandemic; the FAA’s Flight Deck Automation Group identified manual flight operations as an “ongoing challenge” a decade ago, even as operations have become ever more automated. The current decline in these skills is most pronounced among pilots of “highly automated airplanes,” said Ransbury, and the degradation appears to surprise even pilots themselves. He quoted comments from the ASRS reports: “I was legally IFR current, but I was clearly not proficient,” wrote one, adding, “Covid-19 prevented me from getting recent practice.” Another reported having “Too much confidence in assuming that it would all come back to me as second nature. I was wrong.”

Relaxation of FAA currency regulations meant to compensate for the systemic strains caused by Covid “make the situation worse,” Ransbury continued. Meanwhile, with operations trying to rebound, professional pilots that have remained active “are under a lot of pressure and generally face fatigue challenges,” in addition to pandemic-related stress many people have experienced during the lockdown, according to Ransbury.

Mitigation strategies include improving pilots’ awareness of the aircraft energy state; following the guidelines from ICAO’s 2014 Upset Prevention and Recovery Training manual; and most importantly, dedicated practice. “We definitely need to be more aware of how much our proficiency decreases as we are flying less,” Ransbury said.

Airlines he’s spoken with on this issue report it generally requires three four-hour simulator sessions to restore pilots’ skills to an acceptable level.