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Could Covid’s ‘impatience’ make pilots less prepared?

(CNN) – If a pandemic means you’ve almost forgotten what the inside of a plane looks like, you’re not alone. Covid has laid the foundation for commercial fleets worldwide, setting a tough road to recovery for the aviation industry.

Omicron has slowed that return, and a full return to pre-pandemic air traffic levels could take one to two and a half years, depending on various estimates. However, international travel is to pick upborder is open again and more and more planes are back in service.

Many airline and airport employees have been laid off or laid off in the past few years, and for some have means returning to work after a break – a particularly delicate proposition for pilots. Can being away from the cockpit for long periods of time affect a pilot’s confidence or performance?

Unstable approaches

In one report Regarding an incident that occurred in September 2021 at Aberdeen Airport in Scotland, the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) thinks it’s possible.
A Boeing 737 approaching the airport was asked to perform a “go round” – an aborted landing in which the aircraft climbs back up, circles around and tries again. It can happen for a number of reasons, such as bad weather or obstacles on the runway.

According to the report, the plane should have climbed 3,000 feet before making a circle to approach the runway, but instead it “deviated significantly from its intended flight path”, descending quickly. rapid and “unexpected” increase in airspeed. t fix soon enough. It took the pilots about a minute to correct the error, before landing safely.

The report noted that the crew had not always flown as often in the previous 18 months, although flight simulators were used to help maintain skills. “Real-world environment”, “it creates different requirements for crews and it is possible that this event shows that recent lack of exposure to real world environment may be eroding capacity of crews to deal effectively with those challenges.”

The report also states that the “safety benefits of simulation training are well established” and emphasizes that a link has not been established “between this event and the lack of flight path”, but says it ” clearly a possibility.”

Although the report only suggests a link between this event and the lack of ability to fly, Paul Dickens, a psychologist at Core Aviation PsychologyThe company provides psychological services to airlines, believing it to be primarily a diplomatic advantage: “It certainly seems to me that this and some of the other incidents that occurred earlier in the pandemic are directly related to the lack of actual flying practice.”
In July 2020, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) issued a notice to inform the aviation industry of the growing number of “unstable approach” or landing attempt where the aircraft’s speed, direction, or landing speed is incorrect. They have more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels.
In one leaked memo As obtained by the Australian press, national carrier Qantas detailed errors made by its pilots after long periods of inactivity due to Covid, such as starting take-off with the brakes on.
Similar reports have surfaced from around the world, many through NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System, a platform where industry experts can anonymously record incidents, for the wider community to discuss. CNN analysis of the platform found a number of Covid-related bugs, one of which involved a plane landing without permission to do so. “Since the Covid-19 breakout, I haven’t flown as often as before,” one of the pilots of that flight wrote. “I believe this counts towards this incident.”

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Lost ‘currency’

According to Dickens, anyone who hasn’t practiced their skills in the real world will experience some degree of skill decline, but that’s not unique to pilots and happens in any profession: “That happens to anyone who takes time off work, even more so during a pandemic, when that time off is an unusual amount of time.”

Typically, pilots need to record a number of takeoffs and landings every 90 days and pass a semi-annual training review to keep their “currency” – a term used in the industry. aviation to indicate recent level of experience.

Patrick Smith, a Boeing 767 pilot and the author of the popular book and blog “Request a pilot“, agrees that a lack of currency, in any industry, can affect performance and preparedness levels. However, he doesn’t call it a safety concern.

“I think this is a fair discussion, but maybe not to the point where people believe it,” he said. “Certainly busyness will remain, there’s simply no way to deal with that. Does that mean an unsafe flight? No.”

When pilots drop currency, they need to undergo retraining, often in simulation, as well as physical and psychological assessments, although there are no universal rules for when and how this happens: “It varies by airline and country,” says Extinguish. “In the EU [where I work] all pilots go through a psychological assessment before starting on-line operations and I see a lot of pilots starting to fly again who have been doing other things for the past two years or so. “

But what happens to a pilot who hasn’t flown for so long? “They may lose situational awareness, which is the knowledge of where you are in the air, be able to visualize themselves in the cockpit and also in space. They may also have trouble getting out. decisions and problem solving, as told by Dickens.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), in a safety report released last year, raised similar concerns: “With little or no exposure to flight missions over long periods of time, flight crews are likely to encounter high cognitive duty requirements when they return to In the context of a procedural and regulatory heavy Work Environment, the risk of slips, errors and lapses can be great.”

The report also points out that “a decline in proficiency can create a direct safety risk, as accuracy, speed and eventual effectiveness of task performance decline due to lack of practice.”

A photo taken on December 9, 2011 in Paris showing the controls of a flight simulator reimagined the cockpit of a Boeing 737. The Flight Experience Simulator is aimed at the public. and offers a variety of flight packages ranging from 30 to 90 minutes across 24,000 airports.  AFP PHOTO JOEL SAGET (Image credit should read JOEL SAGET / AFP via Getty Images)

A photo taken on December 9, 2011 in Paris shows the controls of a flight simulator reimagined the cockpit of a Boeing 737.

JOEL SAGET / AFP via Getty Images

Cleaned up for the flight?

Whether a pilot feels fully qualified when returning to work after a break may also be related to factors unique to each individual, such as how long they have flown, on any aircraft, as well as their general mental and physical health.

“I’ve been working pretty consistently throughout the pandemic, but I’ve gone through periods where I’ve gone weeks without flying,” said Smith, who has been a pilot for more than 30 years. “I’ve never felt that I couldn’t fulfill anything that would be asked of me.”

So how can the pilot get back to the loop in a reasonable way? “By far, a simulator is the best tool, and for the most part, that’s what airlines have done when pilots run out of money or are grounded for long periods of time,” Smith said.

However, simulator availability has also been impacted by the pandemic, either due to travel restrictions – with pilots unable to reach the simulator’s location on their own – or social distancing restrictions. .

“Access to these emulators is likely to remain an issue in the future due to widespread health measures that limit the number of slots available worldwide,” the EASA report said. . To mitigate this problem, EASA has begun approving alternative technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR), which is easier to deploy than traditional simulators that are full replicas of the actual cockpit.

Other ways to reduce the risk for returning crew members are to pair a pilot who hasn’t worked for a long time with another pilot with recent flight experience and to avoid challenging airports – for example, with difficult airport to land or short runway.

Released by IATA a lot of documents contains instructions for the crew to return to work, and EASA has begun an operation called “Ready – Stay Safe“which includes specific advice for pilots. Examples include conducting mental rehearsals, paying more attention to the aircraft and flight path than before, and reviewing SOP – Operating Procedures.” Standard, step-by-step instructions for performing operations safely – before reporting to duty.

After returning to the controls during an actual flight, the pilot has another way to get used to the plane more quickly: by relying less on automation and flying the plane manually, as in airport approach.

“It’s a way to make sure their skills are being used, instead of going on autopilot and just letting the plane fly on its own, because they won’t gain anything from that. The physical action will brings in skills a bit faster,” said Dickens.

While this is a complex issue with many factors at play, should you keep that in mind when boarding your next plane?

“It depends on the airline,” Dickens said. “I’m sure there’s a person or two who are less strict about this process, but to be honest with you, most scheduled airlines know that this is an important issue – and have taken it very seriously. full.”

Top image: Airplanes on the ground are seen at the Asia Pacific Aircraft storage facility on May 15, 2020 in Alice Springs, Australia.

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