Study: Pandemic Impacted Pilot Skills

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Daytona Beach, FL - You might not think that the “use it or lose it rule” applies to a pilot’s skill in the cockpit, but a study from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University says—especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic—the rule still rings true.

Dr. Rajee Olaganathan, an adjunct assistant professor at ERAU in Phoenix, Arizona and the principal investigator for the study, said the level of skill deterioration she found in the study surprised her. She cited a 50 percent increase in pilot errors following pandemic-related lockdowns in the summer of 2020. She said when flying hours are reduced, it will have an effect on the skill of the pilot.

“The current COVID-19 scenario made it difficult for pilots to achieve federal requirements,” Olaganathan said. “It also placed a burden on pilots to maintain their currency and proficiency, due to lack of access to aircraft following industry-wide furloughs and layoffs. Because of that, the number of safety incidents related to pilot proficiency increased tremendously during this pandemic period.”

The highest reduction in global operations during the pandemic happened in May 2020. In that time, services were reduced by over 70 percent when compared to the level of service just a year prior. In the US alone, that meant a total of 532,834 flights than in May 2019.

Olaganathan’s study—published in the Global Journal of Engineering and Technology Advances—identified one of the main problem areas as a pilot’s skill at landing. In one such case, Olaganathan cited a Pakistan Airlines crash that killed 97 people. “Human error” was found to be the cause of the crash.

Pilots are required to perform at least three takeoffs and landings per 90-day period in order to keep their safety certifications. However, that became impossible when pandemic-related shutdowns were implemented across the globe. Because of this, some airlines began to practice work-sharing, which is a schedule in which flights are assigned evenly among all on-staff pilots to ensure the opportunity for practice.

Dr. Olaganathan, on the other hand, suggests that governing bodies—like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—could approve virtual proficiency standards—such as using a simulator—to offer pilots an alternative method to keeping up to date on their certifications, in spite of travel restrictions, cost, or any other kind of physical restraint.

“Pilots also need to make an honest assessment of their skills and confidence upon returning to work,” she said. “They may need to turn down offers like shorter landing approaches from air traffic control, if they do not feel ready.”

“Airlines have to develop training programs, webinars for pilots re-entering services ranging from theory refreshers to multiple simulator sessions, as well as supervised in-flight checks, depending on the length of absence,” added Olaganathan.

Assisting her in this study was ERAU alumnus Roli Angelo H. Amihan (Class of 2021), a former master of Aeronautical Science student and military service man.

“Having served in the aviation side of the military in the Philippine Navy, I have seen colleagues and friends injured and die from something that could have been prevented had there been a proactive mindset in terms of aviation safety,” he said. “I wanted to do something meaningful that would be useful to the aerospace industry.”

That drive is what drove the San Tan Valley native to Embry-Riddle, as well as to Dr. Olaganathan’s project. He hopes to work as a certified flight instructor before becoming a missionary pilot.

“The work helped me to be more self-aware of my capabilities, especially if I haven’t flown for a long time,” he said. “It made me a more safety-minded pilot, which I can bring into my aviation career.”

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