Forgetting to disengage the parking brake. Not turning on the aircraft’s anti-icing system. Lining up the wrong runway to land on. Having to attempt a landing three times on a windy day.
These are just some of the in-flight errors logged by NASA’s safety reporting system in recent months. Experts and regulatory authorities have attributed these seemingly ‘silly’ errors made by the pilots to ‘being rusty’. As a result of an unprecedented fall in air travel, pilots have had fewer opportunities to fly.
To the everyday reader who comes across such articles, the incidents are amusing; comical even. That’s perfectly understandable. Pilots go through years of training where they spend hours honing their flying skills. Even if you make an allowance for the break in flying duties as a result of the pandemic, it would seem far-fetched to attribute such errors to a lack of practice.
The important thing to understand is that flying is not like riding a bike or driving a car. It’s not a relatively automatic or effortless task that is practically impossible to get wrong with practice. That’s not to say that riding a bike or driving a car are mundane tasks that can’t be messed up but compared to piloting an aircraft; they are extremely simple.
“Extended absence of a significant number of flight deck crew can lead to diminished skills, less effective situational awareness and can lead to deviation from standard operating procedures” — IATA Airlines Group
For something to be considered ‘automatic’ in the field of Human Factors, there are two important conditions to fulfill — consistent mapping and extensive, repetitive practice. For example, when driving a car through an intersection regulated by a traffic light, there are three possible stimuli — red, yellow, green. Every time you see red, you bring the car to a stop. If you see green, you drive on. These two perception-action pairs become automatic because they are consistent and repeated over and over again. No deliberation is necessary on the part of the driver. However, things get interesting when the light is yellow. In some situations, we step on the accelerator, other times we play it safe by stopping. There are multiple factors that dictate what we do — how alert we feel, the traffic on the road, the size of the intersection, the width of the road, etc. There is no one, consistent response that is repeated. As a result, the action you take when you see a yellow light can never become automatic.
“Because I had not flown in a few months, I was rusty. I felt that my recollection was strong enough, but in reality I should have taken some time to review the standard operating procedures.” — The first officer who forgot to activate the anti-icing mechanism
When it comes to piloting, it is not all about perception-action pairs. Flying involves high-level knowledge and complex skills that can atrophy if not accessed regularly. Due to this, as a standard practice, pilots are supposed to undergo refresher training every 6 months or so to keep their skills sharp. In such training, they practice lesser-used skills such as stall recovery, dealing with an engine failure, and flying into a thunderstorm, so that if and when they need to deal with such situations, they can do so adequately. Such skills require multiple coordinated actions and comprehensive knowledge of system relationships and airplane mechanics, and thus can never be automatic actions.
“The key to flying safely is frequency. “You are not as sharp if you haven’t flown for a while.” — Richard G. McSpadden Jr., senior vice president at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.’s Air Safety Institute
“Contributing factors included light turbulence requiring constant power adjustments. “Also, lack of recent flight time due to taking leave — this was my first approach/landing in a number of weeks on top of very limited flight time in the past six months.” — First officer who required 3 tries to land a plane in windy conditions
In the current scenario, even the skills which would be used in everyday flying and are usually practiced regularly, are not so regular anymore. Errors such as the ones mentioned in the examples above are bound to happen.
Present-day travelers, however, should be reassured that flying right now does not mean that pilots would be so rusty as to crash the planes they fly. There are several safeguards and operating procedures built to catch significant errors before they result in severe consequences.
Nevertheless, all this just goes to show that no — flying a plane is not like riding a bike 30,000 ft in the air.