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Skill Decline in pilots pre Covid

Old 25th Mar 2021, 10:29
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Skill Decline in pilots pre Covid

There is much talk about skill decline, quite rightly, during Covid. Rusty planes and rusty pilots with minimal retraining going back up there. Lost the natural rhythm of flying a plane which is largely muscle / brain memory soon lost. It is a perfect storm if not handled correctly by which I mean re-training and lots of it .
However I am concerned that on top of the elephant we have a larger elephant which is the large number of pilots that were not really that well trained in the first place. If you review the last 15 years, most crashes feature LOC 1 which is Loss Of Control Inflight . We note when reading the reports that the pilots could not cope with what was sometimes just a routine event. AF 447 was not a routine event but it was an event manageable by trained pilots. Emirates Dubai was a lucky escape but was just a Go Around - that's all. SFO crash was just a manual visual approach. The list goes on and on. Conversely we have many safe landings in very difficult circumstances such as Hudson River , BA 9 Jakarta, QF32 ex Sin where the plane was crippled yet the well trained experienced pilots landed safely. Even the MaX crashes are now recognised as having a lack of training as a casual factor and now retraining is required. It is interesting to note that the "retraining " contains little that a 707 or early 737-200 pilot would not have known long ago. But has been quietly dropped from the syllabus. Now it is a back.
So what do the readers here thing about this training issue? I believe it is the lack of IF Instrument Flying skills (in bad weather with "g" forces and illusions for which all IF pilots were once totally at ease) that is at the heart of the matter coupled with poor training. And over reliance on the AFDS to fly the plane when things go wrong. I am NOT blaming any pilot here. The pilots fly the way they are trained and my heart goes out the Klasair crew flying around MADRID recently with a simple autopilot disconnect and unable to manage the flight path. It was not their fault. Somebody put them up there. Look forward to a measured conversation on this important issue.
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Old 25th Mar 2021, 15:14
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I've been flying for over 25 years, and I'd say that the quality of hands-on training we receive now (at least in my company) exceeds what I've known at any previous stage of my flying career. When I started, it's true that you would fly the aeroplane round an IR route - good instrument flying practice, sure - and you didn't have beta targets, TCAS and stuff. But literally the only surprise in the first eight years or so of getting my licence signed was which engine was going to fail, and whether you would say, "At this point, I'd consider a relight" or not ("yeah, that's fine, you can assume it doesn't relight. Now get on with the single engine ILS.")

In my last sim, in addition to the upset recovery training that has been mandated since AF447 was digested, the trainer gave me a, "You're on fire, put it on the ground as fast as you can", along with a separate complete failure of engine instruments (with engine failure). In the last few years, I've also had sim practice handling the aircraft with double engine failures (to land), loss of flight instruments, loss of autopilot on go-around, TCAS Climb at performance ceiling into upset recovery, stall recovery, approaches with manual thrust and flight directors off, circling approaches, circling approaches with engine failures ...

On top of that the Evidence Based Training framework means that pilots are being taught not to do procedures to handle specific failures, but being given the tools to manage any failure effectively.

Us "old pilots" are always likely to be hmphy about the inferior skills of pilots these days. But if I'm honest with myself, not only are the "youngsters" up to speed with flight path management manually, they are also well prepared with other skills. And that's great, as far as I'm concerned. I have nothing to prove. But I want to know that whoever I'm with will work with me to dig us out of whatever hole we end up in. It's not a competition.
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Old 26th Mar 2021, 10:08
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Young Paul.
You don't sound that young with 25 years under the belt! Could be 45 + I guess which is young by me standards. If you are being trained this way then you are one of the lucky ones I would hazard and I am keen to know which aircraft you fly and whereabouts? Look at the recent spate of LOC accidents (aka fatal crashes, or total hull losses with minimal fatalities =luck) and you will see that planes are being lost when there is little wrong with them. Examples of nothing wrong , and there are many, are SFO 777, Dubai 777, Thompson 737 GA at BOH, PIA Karachi was a combination of nothing wrong followed by a lot wrong. Klasair Madrid recently unable to fly the patterns without the AFDS AP system.
Something wrong would be where some failure is not dealt with in the correct manner leading to loss of the aircraft. Examples so "something wrong", mishandled, would be of course Turkish AMS, AF 447 and various 737 LOC , where the planes had a minor ADI issue and the pilots lost control. There are so many we don't have space here to list them but, your training would appear to be of a calibre which is right up there with the best. Well done to your Flight Training Manager and CEO who obviously sees the value in correct training. This is really good news that. Ps I heard that Emirates has increased training to 6 days per annum v the usual 4. Many airlines have gone to 3 days per annum which is in my view inadequate to cover mandatory training/Checking and then covering the large range fo scenarios that might occur in line flying.
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Old 26th Mar 2021, 10:40
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The implication is that skills are declining. However, where flight safety objectives require matching skills to the task, the statistics suggest that there is a sufficiently matched balance - we are statistically safe, for now.
Some academic views suggest that aviation is approaching a practical limit of safety*, and that there is little more which can be done without disturbing this delicate balance. The residual, rare accident scenarios cannot be imagined nor trained for; safety is as good as it gets - we must maintain current the status quo; beware complacency.
EASA LoC statistics are dominated by high fatality accidents. For the accidents which originated from equipment failure, modifications have removed the particular threat. So why train for these specific situations - after the fact.
The remaining adverse events - relatively few in a safe industry, are more likely statistical noise.

Future risk depends on data classification and subjective assessments (ERCS). The LoC data are wide ranging, EASA Safety Review;
Aircraft upset, includes all occurrences involving an actual or potential loss of control inflight, which includes situations where unintended deviations from the flight path has occurred. This covers only occurrences during the airborne phase of flight and may occur as a result of a deliberate manoeuvre (e.g., stall/spin practice). It includes occurrences involving configuring the aircraft (e.g., flaps, slats, on-board systems, etc.) as well as stalls on fixed wing aircraft.
N.B. ‘potential’, judgement after the fact. Risk assumes that the future will be the same as the past.

The emerging risks are more likely to be self generated, over-reactions, thinking that we know better - a belief that skills are reducing. But which skills, whose judgement, which situations, when?
We dislike uncertainty, thus in avoiding this, the greater risk is that our constraining, after the fact, pigeon-hole safety categorisation, and rule based reaction will be mistaken; the next accident will be self inflicted, by whom, where, when, … (how many previous ones were - AF447, 737Max - a point of view), limited by foresight.
‘Risk is the amount of uncertainty humans are expected to manage’.

* The paradoxes of an almost totally safe transport systems: Amalberti
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Old 26th Mar 2021, 11:09
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HI Safety Pee. I am not sure that the families of the passengers on Swirijaya 182, PIA Karachi, B737 Rostov on Don and so many others would agree that we have reached a safe place. Moreover every day we read of near misses in Aviation Herald and other journals which beggar belief. Many so close to disaster - e.g. three incidents in a few months in HKG below safety height on approach. And there is a common factor - the inability to respond to what is often a non event, or a very minor event, and yes sometimes a major event, but one for which your training should have been adequate to ensure a safe landing. Its a very important debate. You seem to be saying that you cannot train for the next crash because they are too varied in nature? Perhaps you are saying that we cannot second-guess the next scenario which will lead to hundreds of deaths? Many commentators believe you can. You train the pilots to be able to cope with >any< even, t foreseeable or not. Sully, Richard de Crespigny (QF 32) and crew, and others come to mind, as do the thousands of pilots who every day make good decisions which avoid potential danger. Thanks for coming back on this Safety Pee. Appreciate your views. retired guy.
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Old 26th Mar 2021, 13:24
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I'm very concerned about how many pilots have very poor flying skills and are in the front seat of an airliner. It's a serious issue that amazingly quite a bunch of pilots will still deny it nowadays. I'm convinced that sadly we will see more and more accidents who could have been avoided if the pilots had proper hand skills. It's a fact that it's potentially very dangerous but it seems most airlines accept to take that risk since 99.99% of the time automation will do the right job and therefore do almost nothing to help their pilots to have decent flying skills. I think also the main issue is that in many airlines nowadays, the top managers, instructors some of them are reluctant to hand flying, they probably aren't able to fly at ease a raw data ILS anyway, and will push their pilots to use the automation all the time as they believe it's safer... Some airlines don't even allow pilots to disconnect the Auto Thrust or to fly without FDs... That's should not even be legal IMHO. I'm lucky enough to have always flown for airliners who let's us fly raw data during line operations but even so I have flown with many guys who never do it and some of them I guaranty you that... Well let's just hope they will never end up in an AF447 scenario.
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Old 26th Mar 2021, 17:34
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rg, ‘Perhaps you are saying that we cannot second-guess the next scenario which will lead to hundreds of deaths?’
Yes; but I would like to consider the views which consider otherwise.

If we view the human as a hazard, requiring training, awareness, and acting appropriately in every situation, then the industry will grind slowly to a halt. We might train for the unexpected, but no training can assure appropriate outcome - mismatched awareness or understanding.* (this applies to all humans in aviation, whatever level, who trains the trainers, regulators, …)
Viewing the human as an asset by identifying behaviours which result in safe outcomes, then there could be small improvements. However, this requires understanding that behaviour and matching it appropriately to situations.

In AF 447 the human is often viewed as a hazard. But what of the previous 15 or so ice crystal air-data malfunctions with successful outcomes - we should view the human as an asset, but without investigation nothing is learnt. In hindsight, these crews made good decisions, but we don't know why or how, so what can be trained.

The circular argument is our inability to understand human behaviour, for which there is no single solution (even if we think we understand the problem).
Human behaviour is complex, thus any ‘system’ involving humans must be treated as complex, requiring alternative viewpoints, thinking, and ‘gentle tending by the gardeners’.
If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.” Von Hayek
Sections 1 (wicked issues) and 5, gardening

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Old 26th Mar 2021, 17:48
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Hi Pineteam
The classics are lf course AF 447 - airplane perfectly flyable but ended up in the sea. Tragic. Not an easy one to handle but that's why we spent all those years training for it. QF32 is different in that it was a potentially a catastrophe in the making, very difficult to manage, but due to the skill of the pilots, working for a first class airline, they landed safely. Two extremes really.
When I heard that the Max had crashed in Lionair I just thought - another Indonesian airline (commonplace then with most of them banned in Europe ) and I thought "why didn't they carry out the IAS unreliable procedure and then the RUNAWAY STAB procedure. Boeing said the same and simply issued an AD saying do the procedure and reminding all pilots of it. . ET5 months later, I felt no excuse now - they had been pre- warned and did exactly the same thing. But then I heard USA pilots in Delta and Southwest saying that they too were unaware , not of MCAS which is a red herring because there are four causes of runaway stab, all of which will run the stabiliser for ten seconds (short circuit in the motor, AP, mach trim, speed trim) but they had not been trained in any great detail in handling runaway stab. What? US pilots not well trained? My alarm bells went off. What is happening to the gold standard of FAA/USA/EASA training if AF447 can crash and then this? Since then having studied most crashes in the last ten years it is quite obvious that the lack of training - I never use the phrase "pilot error" is at the root of this, and moreover it is specifically the ability to fly on instruments in cloud or darkness (with "illusions and "g" forces often mentioned) with multiple failures and completely out of practice - assuming the ever were "in practice". I feel this has to stop and that just adding more automation isn't the solution. It is training.
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Old 26th Mar 2021, 20:53
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rg, pine; the training required for AF447 after the malfunction was essentially to do nothing - recognising the situation as that requiring the second part of the checklist.
Before the event; avoid the conditions.

As with many notable accidents, attention is focussed on the outcome, and then why the crew were unable to prevent this.
An alternative view is that crew awareness and understanding was insufficient for the situation, or that with understanding the chosen action was incorrect.

Pilots require skills for situation awareness; the basics can be taught, but experience is required for more complex situations. This cannot be taught conventionally; it is best gained from corrected mistakes, outcomes not as expected, and saved to memory with understanding - facts, know what, - action, know when, know how, matching action with situation.
But in todays industry we are not allowed to make mistakes, no opportunity to learn.
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Old 28th Mar 2021, 13:54
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I beg to differ. I a world now where the number of emergencies is smaller than 30 years ago, when it was possible to learn on the job, one simply trains differently. First of all the ability to fly the plane without automation working is paramount. That can be taught and is not being taught sufficiently well. I did 250 hours for my CPL with 100 hours on aerobatic aircraft, 100 on light singles four seaters and 50 on twins. Nowadays they do around 180 yours with no aerobatics and nothing like the amount of bad weather instrument flying that we had to undergo. Flying manually on instruments in bad weather or with distractions is second nature when you are trained to do it. Secondly the learning has to be by studying all the events that do occur. with great interest and to learn from them. Take the Lionair Max. If I were flying the MAX, after Lionair I would have learned from what happened, how to avoid it and of course found out all I could about the crash - including the fact that the day before they did not crash with the same fault. How did they avoid it? By trimming and turning off the STAB OFF switches. It beggars belief that a second crew did not learn from the first one, and that a third crew suffered the same fate. I am not excusing MCAS design flaws - they were egregious, but the plane could and was flown to a safe landing the day before. That is how we learn. Among a raft of other ways I believe.
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Old 31st Mar 2021, 08:52
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Thank you for the response; differing views are opportunities to learn and alter understandings in an uncertain world.
In a safe industry there are fewer accidents. Also it is difficult to identify meaningful similarities if any exist at all; most correlations are about ill-defined human behaviour in complex situations.
Choosing to fix the man - training, tends towards an extreme; conversely we should not over commit to technology because humans are still involved, although at different points in time, design, certification and operation.
The issue is how to achieve a suitable balance after an event, and thus before the next one.

Beggars belief’; beware hidden assumptions, that all crews will have sufficient knowledge, understand situations and behave similarly. The second Max example illustrates Boeing’s thinking, an assumption that crews’ will understand and have time to act in situations as imagined, we should not think the same - ‘this is how we learn’.

The apparent inability to fly - our perception, erroneously concluding that this is due to reduced skill might hide other problems, or create new problems by inappropriate action. Situation awareness has greater influence than manual skill; situations involve distraction, ambiguity, time constraint, recall of knowledge.

After an accident we can find whatever we look for; the skills required to avoid this involve how we achieve a balanced view, avoiding extremes, and considering alternative points of view. This applies particularly to designers and safety regulators.


We found that while pilots’ instrument scanning and aircraft control skills are reasonably well retained when automation is used, the retention of cognitive skills needed for manual flying may depend on the degree to which pilots remain actively engaged in supervising the automation.”

Other publications about thinking: -
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