We are now about one year into the pandemic. Last year, around the end of March, nearly the whole of European and world aviation came to a grinding halt. The skies emptied.
Initially, there was hope that this would be a temporary situation and that we would recover in the summer or surely by the end of the year. Regulators developed waivers and mitigating measures to assist the airlines, secure much-needed cargo capacity, and still keep the skies safe.
But slowly we were all faced with reality: air transport was not coming back quickly. Depending on local health situations, the traffic restarted, stopped, restarted again…
And with this slow and hesitating restart came the reports from pilots feeling uncomfortable, making unusual mistakes. Newspapers published articles describing "rusty" pilots….
A new term was coined: Skills Decay.
What Do We Mean by ‘Skills Decay’?
As soon as you read this, something will pop into your mind.
The discussions Halldale/CAT magazine has hosted over two subject-expert workshops and a public webinar clearly show that there is no single answer to that question.
Is it manual flying skill, or procedures, or situational awareness…?
At a time when EBT/ CBTA is becoming the norm, should we be better talking about “Competency Decay”?
If we agree that a pilot should reach competency on all agreed competencies and establish that by observable behaviours, why should we not look at these behaviours to talk about loss or decay of a competency or competencies?
Manual operation is only one of the competencies, and one would think that is the most important one, but the expert group claimed, based on their observations, that this was not the case.
The operators observed, and pilots reported, that the other competencies decayed at least as rapidly if not faster than manual flying and that manual flight skills come back more quickly than the others.
The main challenge seems to be the complexity of operations, bringing all of it together with a mind attuned to rapid thought!
Why are we talking about it now? In the past pilots left line flying for weeks, months, or even years to deal with health issues, pregnancy, etc.
What is the difference today? In “normal“ times, a pilot may be away for a year or two, he or she comes back, their airline puts them through a complete course and some line training: case closed.
In the coming months, airlines will face hundreds of pilots returning and, depending on how the pandemic and travel evolves, on short notice; airlines may not have the time or resources to go through extensive re-training.
So, the question is then: what is ACCEPTABLE what is NOT?
Image credit: CAE.
No one knows. It was never necessary to work this issue out, even after 9/11, but the pandemic has affected the global airline system for many months.
So why do we lose skills and what other factors influence the pilot's overall performance; how do we mitigate the risks for operations in the coming months and years?
"There is nothing instinctive in humans about flying an airplane. It is a learned skill." Capt. Helen Heenan, KURA Human Factors
There are academic studies on skills decay in aviation, driving, and other kinds of learned behaviour.
While these studies give a good idea of what is happening in our brains, there is no absolute answer.
Scholars will agree that decay will be more rapid if the person has had little time to stabilize their skills. The studies are not decisive on what decays first: manual skills or cognitive skills.
Our workshop experts agreed with the trainers' observations that manual skills were not the biggest issue.
The discussion focused on the brain's capacity and how, under certain circumstances, that capacity is reduced, limiting our cognitive functional ability. We can consider that manual skills are deeply embedded in part of the brain that handles most automatic actions, and therefore they are not so quickly lost, as long as these skills have been practised enough.
All other actions we do as pilots are handled by the cognitive part of the brain and require a thought process. Doing these actions or procedures regularly will bring this into the more semi-automatic part, freeing capacity for other challenges. If we have been grounded for a long time, the flying thought process will require the active cognitive brain once again, thus slowing down the whole process and reducing overall (and reducing spare) processing capacity. Examples are monitoring an active radio frequency while having a conversation with the other pilot and potentially monitoring a waypoint change. Easy when current, more challenging when "rusty."
"Everybody's position, experience, mental wellbeing ... is unique, and therefore everybody's individual competencies will decay at different rates." Capt. Carl Haslem, Resilient Pilot
Handling the aircraft in manual flight is an essential part of the overall competencies and has been under constant discussion for some years. As seen before, there is no agreement within the scientific community if manual skill decays quicker than the cognitive skills.
As in any other competency, the decay is relative to the level from where you start; eg novice or expert.
So, a few weeks or even months without flying will not create a problem when you have a very experienced pilot with good handling skills. Less than a full session in the simulator will solve that.
All training managers in the workshops agreed that when they took experienced crews back into the simulator for their licence proficiency check after more than six months away from flying, their handling skills were not affected. They passed with no problems.
When you take a freshly qualified FO who has had only a few months of flying on the line before being furloughed, he or she will need several sessions to get back to the level required.
Handling may well require some more of the pilots’s attention, some more "brain capacity," so other tasks may be slower. Therefore, it might be a good idea not to insist on flying manually but use automation as per company procedures.
As the complexity of the simulator session increased, it was almost like tunnel vision ... their ability to assimilate information that was coming in from different directions started to suffer." Capt. Martin Mahoney, Emirates
Standard Operating Procedures have been and are still the key to safe operations.
All the procedures, preparing the flight, doing the cockpit set up to shutdown procedures, are engraved in the crews' memory during their training. After a few months, these become semi-automatic.
As with other competencies, the more practice the better the retention and the more manageable the daily execution becomes.
Once we stop practicing for months, this memory will fade. We will need to think again about the next step. What are we supposed to do at this or that point?
Some companies have, unintentionally, added to the difficulty by changing procedures during the slowdown. This will create more confusion and the risk of making mistakes.
So the key is to keep it simple and give the crews more time. One of the companies represented at the workshop has lengthened the turn-around times on the short-haul sectors. This extra time avoids stress and gives the crews the time to go through the procedures at their pace. It all helps towards safe operation.
Pandemic operations have also brought many administrative or health-related procedures that add to the stress level. Again, try to keep it simple and reduce any new or added procedures.
Image credit: BAA Training.
The expert group said, at the start, that the issue is decay or loss of competency across all fields.
It sounds obvious that we would want the crews to be back to ‘top-notch’ performance when they go back to line operations, but are all competencies and behaviors necessary at the same level?
Are some more "need" to have and others ”nice” to have?
If we believe that all are needed, do we need to have them all at an ‘excellent ‘level?
We need to look at the competencies, decide which ones are critical and need to be really good, and which ones we can accept at a ‘satisfactory ’ level.
It is not acceptable to believe that one simulator session will bring all competencies to the same level they were six months ago. That is not going to happen. But if you get them all to a satisfactory level, with the needed training, you can have safe operations.
In Europe, some major airlines have used this approach, and they see in the Flight Data Monitoring no negative trends, no significant difference versus before.
Training for all the competencies must be done in various ways, and the simulator is not going to solve all problems. Radio Communication skills, for example, will not improve in a simulator. Line operational procedures are not realistic in the sim.
Having returning pilots on the jump seat can be an effective and inexpensive way of solving some of those issues.
That way they are immersed in the environment, get used again to ATC, familiarise themselves with new company procedures, and at the same time, it is another pair of eyes in the cockpit, adding a safety layer in operations.
"Pilots usually know where their blank spots are ... integrate these into the training." Capt. Tanja Harter, European Cockpit Association
Competency is of course a must, but another factor for safe operations is the confidence of the pilot in him/herself.
An effective and safe pilot must have enough self-confidence. Feeling insecure or lacking confidence in his/her competence creates stress and reduces the level of performance. This is especially so after a prolonged time without flying, and in these bizarre and stressful times, this confidence can be much lower than is optimum.
This confidence must be rebuilt during the re-training before releasing to the line. That means that operators must consider the confidence of their pilots when creating the training syllabus and also make sure their trainers are fully aware of this requirement.
There is no point in taking someone after a year of non-activity and give him a V1 cut on his first TO !
Depending on the situation, length of non-activity, and prior experience, airlines need to start slowly. Give the crews time to get through the standard setups; do not rush. Let them do a routine short flight, no failures. Later the level of difficulty can be increased by using non-familiar airports and weather issues.
After that start with some exercises. It is all about building up confidence.
At the end, a particular exercise that is not graded, something like an unextinguishable cabin fire, and tell the crew to get back on the ground in 20 minutes. Just let them do whatever it takes. The outcome is not so important; it is the fact they build resilience, and try to do it.
In the debriefing, concentrate on the things that went well. Do not linger on small things that they forgot or were not perfect. Sometimes it is OK to make an error! Look at the positive achievements.
Ask them what they would like as additional training. Individualise the training as much as possible.
Do not underestimate the line training. The Captain and the First Officer have to be confident that they are ready before releasing them to the line.
Image credit: easyJet.
Crews do not operate in isolated bubbles. They work in a complex environment with a lot of threats…
The environment has changed with new threats. Other professionials around the flightcrew are basically in the same situation of loss of competency.
- The ground staff is under pressure. They have new protocols to follow for health issues; they may be feeling insecure because of this. They can create additional stress for the flight crew even before the flight starts.
- ATC. With reduced flying, ATC also has to look at the same competency loss. But the reduced traffic opens up the sky, so it makes the job easier. Sometimes they want to be helpful and give crews short-cuts or straight-in approaches where they never did this before. A crew expecting the standard two turns in the hold, then a long outbound and a 12 miles final is now given a radar vector to direct intercept. More often than not, this ends coming high and hot. So, in this case, the airlines should contact ATC to explain the situation and go back to standard procedures.
- With light loads, aircraft have performance levels their crews are not used to. So too much performance can lead to high climb rates and altitude busts.
The key here is to look at it with a threat and error management (TEM) mindset.
Crews must be aware of these threats and mitigate them.
We could call it defensive flying. There is no reason to hurry up: take the time to prepare at your speed. There is no need to accept an intersection TO if you did not prepare it. There is no need to accept short-cuts. There is no rush to do a straight-in that you did not plan.
Operators must guard their crews against unnecessary pressure from outside. They must protect their crews from anyone wanting to get in the way of safe operations under the present circumstances, even if the intent is good.
With time, as the pace of flying picks up, crews will regain prior skill levels and gradually move from safe operations to safe and efficient operations.
"Keep the operations as simple as possible." Capt. Jacques Drappier (Ret.), Airbus
It is a stressful time for everybody, but especially for the pilot group. Aviation is extremely hard hit, and many pilots have been in an awful position.
With 70% of the world fleet parked, pilots became unemployed by the thousands. The lucky ones took an (early) retirement; for the rest it has been a long and uncertain wait to get back into the air, assuming your company is still around! 43 airlines have failed, that we know of, since early 2020.
All this can weigh heavily on the pilots' mental state and jeopardise the future performance of that crewmember.
One of the critical issues is a feeling of not "belonging" anymore. Pilots lose contact with the company, with colleagues, and lose interest in aviation.
As an operator, there are means to keep your temporarily unemployed pilots connected to the company, help them stay mentally healthy, and facilitate their future re-integration.
Examples of how some have managed:
- Create small groups around key people, instructors, for example, so a pilot has someone he can talk with.
- Do monthly or more frequent webinars with the pilots to keep them up to date on the situation and brief them on the company's status.
- Try to get them to maintain their knowledge current through distance learning.
- Get them jump-seat rides when they approach the moment of re-training.
- Open the simulator for free training, with only a sim operator.
Operators will have to take this into account when they start increasing operations and bringing back crews. Consider that most pilots will be fragile after such a long time, associated with unemployment's adverse effects. Management and trainers need to understand this and act accordingly.
Image credit: L3Harris.
Regulations were made in normal times and are, per definition, not necessarily fit for the present situation.
Regulators reacted swiftly at the beginning of the pandemic. They created a set of waivers and extensions to keep the fleet in the air to secure vital cargo flights and pandemic relief.
The idea was that this would end after a few months, and we would get back to normal.
Unfortunately, the situation one year later is still awful; moreover the problem is changing daily and is very diverse depending on the region.
So the waivers are no longer fit for purpose, and regulators are now looking at adapting the temporary measures to the present challenges.
This may take awhile, and until then, it is the operator's moral duty to take the steps they feel necessary to operate safely. In most companies, the Training Management can push back demands from other management departments to guarantee safety. But this might not be the case in all parts of the world...
Conclusions and Recommendations
1. The pandemic's negative results on crews' overall skills are not limited to the technical (handling) skills but to the crewmembers' broad competencies, including, and primarily, the non-technical skills.
2. The decay of competencies will significantly depend on the individual’s starting point/experience. The mitigation will be different for different pilot groups, cultures, experiences, and individuals.
3. Operators must avoid overloading pilots who have been away from flying for an extended period. The focus must be on the "need " and not on the "nice" to have. Keep operations simple!
4. In operations, keep tasks simple, give crews more time to prepare, avoid pressure on time or fuel. Low drag, low noise approaches are excellent for fuel savings, but not a must! Single-engine taxi is nice to have, not a must.
5. Include the working environment in the mitigating actions. Talk to ATC, include ground handling in the discussions. Short-cuts are excellent as such but may lead to unstable approaches.
6. In re-training after a long absence, start with routine line flights in the sim. Try to adapt the training to the needs of the individual. Ask them what they feel is necessary for them.
7. When pilots are not flying, they need to be kept in contact with the company. It is important to feel part of it still. Webinars, free sim sessions, observer flights… all can help.
8. Regulations were based on "normal," not on this situation. Waivers have been given based on assumptions last year. Evidence is now pointing at other issues so that regulators will need to adapt.
In February 2021, Halldale Group and Civil Aviation Training (CAT) magazine, in collaboration with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), held a virtual Heads of Training (HoT) meeting to discuss critical topics facing the airline training community in Europe. The HoT meeting was attended by about 40 airline Heads of Training, training experts from EASA, Authorised Training Organisations (ATOs), and training industry vendors.
The most critical issues which emerged from the HoT group included: Skills Decay, Virtual/Xtended Reality, CBTA/EBT, UPRT, and Big Data.
To continue these discussions, Halldale/CAT are convening a series of deep-dive workshops – the CAT Leader Forum – each with a group of selected subject experts representing airlines, training organisations, academic, regulators and other stakeholders. The findings and recommendations of the workshops will then be presented in a public webinar by representatives of the working group for the respective issue.
The first working group, on Skills Decay, was held in late March and the results presented in a webinar on 7 April.
The recorded webinar is available to view online.
Worshop subject experts included:
Tanja Harter: European Cockpit Association
Sunjoo Advani: Consultant
Philip Adrian: Sim manufacturer
Filip Aerts: Small airline
Robin Verhoeven: Charter airline
Martin Mahoney: Major airline
Andy Moore: Major airline
Owen Sims: University
Helen Heenan: Human Factors consultant
Ascanio Russo: EASA
Jacques Drappier: Halldale