Thousands of airline pilots are spending weeks or even months of the coronavirus pandemic idling at home instead of flying.
When they do return to the flight deck, many are admitting that regaining flying skills is proving harder than anticipated.
“This was my first flight in nearly three months,” one pilot wrote, explaining why he or she neglected to switch on a critical anti-icing system. “I was too confident it would all come back to me as second nature.”
The report is one of many filed in a US federal system for tracking aviation mistakes in which all identifying information is stripped out. The idea is that coming clean about errors encourages analysis and improvements that make aviation safer.
Problems pilots identified in the reports include landing without permission from air traffic controllers, drifting from assigned altitude, and aiming for the wrong runway.
Several pilots reported incorrectly programming flight computers or radios. One dialled in the wrong frequency while approaching an airport. He or she “hadn’t flown for two months”. In the other seat was a colleague who “hadn’t flown for six weeks”.
“I struggle to see a viable remedy for this problem besides just flying more,” that captain wrote. “We definitely need to be more aware of how much our proficiency decreases as we fly less.”
Jim Thomas, head of American Airlines’ flight training, told CNN, “Where we would normally be training pilots to learn new aircraft, we’re now getting them requalified.”
Curtis Joens is a captain who recently returned from a four-month leave of absence, the first of his three-decade career. He said that as a senior pilot, he took some time away from the job during the pandemic to give lower-ranked pilots an opportunity to keep flying and maintain their skills.
US airlines are currently flying about 45% fewer flights than usual, according to the industry group Airlines For America and the hope is as more people receive coronavirus vaccines, so more pilots will be able to take to the air again.
However, the US has a huge and functioning domestic commercial air network which many smaller countries do not.
In those countries the number of pilots sitting out the pandemic at home instead of flying may be close to 100%.