Prepared, not proficient

July 2021

People in aviation are quick to tout the industry’s safety record compared to other modes of transportation. But those same individuals will admit that aviation is uniquely unforgiving. Carelessness, incapacity, incompetence, ignorance, neglect, distraction, unchecked ego and human error can lead to catastrophic outcomes when an aircraft is in the mix.

If you asked them, most pilots, flight crews and maintenance technicians would claim they are proficient. But that’s the right answer to the wrong question. Instead, they should ask themselves whether they are prepared for any and every situation. That answer could be very different.

When training is viewed as little more than a requirement to be met, the result is proficiency. But if training is not customized to the specific operation, crews may not be ready when a challenge presents itself.  Being truly prepared to operate an aircraft, whether on the ground or airborne, requires skills sharpened to the highest degree. 

Simply meeting a regulatory minimum is not enough, pilots must be trained to excel, stay sharp and command complete mastery of their aircraft with calm confidence. Proficient is capable. Prepared is unshakeable. Anyone who has taught a teenager to drive knows the difference. When they take their test and are issued their license, new drivers are proficient, they met the minimum standard. However, the sleepless nights and “text me when you get there” comments illustrate that parents know their new driver is not yet prepared. 

Aviation is an industry of rules and regulations. We need them, but they represent the minimum requirements. Pilots and their passengers shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security that completing specific tasks to defined criteria is the same as being prepared. The accident logs are full of cases in point, and one of the most high-profile is Air France 447 on June 1, 2009.

The compliant crew possessed all the required licenses and ratings and legally required training. The Airbus 330 aircraft had a valid certificate of airworthiness and was maintained and loaded in accordance with regulations. In all respects, the crew was legal for the flight. Yet they were not prepared and as a result, all 228 people on board died.

An investigation found that the pilots failed to respond correctly to problems with the plane’s speed sensors, caused by ice crystals blocking the plane’s pitot tubes. Neither the flying pilot or relief pilot in the cockpit at the time had undertaken training for flight with dubious airspeed and manual aircraft handling at high altitude. Consequently, they weren’t prepared to deal with an aircraft with degraded flight instrumentation and flight computers.

Flight 447 was passing through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a low-pressure belt that wraps around the earth and is prone to volatile weather. Yet the flight crew had not discussed a strategy for navigating the storms in the ITCZ that night. With the captain in the rest facility, and no weather avoidance plan, the first officer and relief pilot continued on course. The aircraft encountered an area of high moisture content and with outside air temperatures well below freezing, the pitot probes that provide vital information to compute airspeed iced over.

With the tubes temporarily blocked, the flight computers reverted to a lower level of protection. The autopilot disconnected, and the ill-prepared pilots reacted incorrectly. Their confused and at times conflicting responses sent the Airbus into a high-altitude, sustained stall. A failure to understand they were in a stalled condition led them to hold the nose in a much higher than normal attitude, rather than lower it to recover. Sadly, the pilots never regained control of the aircraft. 

The most frustrating aspect is had the crew done nothing more than hold the power and aircraft attitude constant, in less than two minutes they would have been back in a known, normal flight condition. By then the heaters had caught up and cleared the pitot tubes. If the pilots were prepared for the event by completing relevant training beyond the regulatory minimum, all aboard the aircraft would have survived. Training would have illustrated the importance of understanding the approximate attitude and power settings for their aircraft to maintain safe cruise flight without airspeed indications. 

Safety rests on the capacity of pilots to remain aware of their surroundings, to understand any abnormal situation and react appropriately. This requires more than the legal minimum of training. Assuming legal is the same as safe can be risky. To illustrate the point, consider the most common phase of flight for accidents is approach and landing, which constitute approximately 65 percent of all accidents. If pilots don’t fly precisely all the time, it is harder to do so when it is critical such as operations on a short runway. The influence of less than precise flying such as being fast, high or not controlling touchdown point all have consequences. If operating on a minimum field length runway, the result may be the aircraft running off the end.  

As with all regulations, the FAA Airman Certification Standards (ACS) allow precision flying variances for touchdown, airspeed and distance. In fact, the ACS includes a variance for stopping the aircraft, and if done within 125 percent of the published value during a check, the pilot is considered to have satisfied the requirement. The end result: You can be legal and proficient, but not prepared for a minimum field length operation.

Safety requires detailed preparation and planning both in flight operations and training. Pilots and aviation managers must seek out training solutions that challenge pilots to excel, not just satisfy a minimum. Professional training will challenge a pilot to do the best they can every time, not just enough to meet a standard.   

Ultimately, training is a safety event that should simultaneously satisfy the regulations, not a regulatory event that will have some safety elements. There is a huge difference.

Aviation rewards the prepared. Accident investigations prove that proficiency alone is a poor substitute.

By Richard Meikle, FlightSafety International, EVP, Safety & Regulatory Compliance