‘It’s Not Quite Like Riding a Bike’: Pilots Get Ready to Fly Again


One returning pilot lost control of an aircraft during landing and skidded off the runway into a ditch. Another just returning from furlough forgot to activate a critical anti-icing system designed to prevent hazards in cold weather. Several others flew at the wrong altitudes, which they attributed to distractions and lapses in communication.

In all of these incidents, which were recorded on NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, a database of commercial aviation mistakes that are anonymously reported by pilots and other airline crew, the pilots involved blamed their mistakes on the same thing: a lack of practice flying during the pandemic.

“It’s not quite like riding a bike,” said Joe Townshend, a former pilot for Titan Airways, a British charter airline, who was laid off when the pandemic hit in March last year.

“You can probably go 10 years without flying a plane and still get it off the ground, but what fades is the operational side of things,” he said. “There is a multitude of information being thrown at you in a real working environment, and the only way to stay sharp and constant is to keep doing it.”

In 2020, global air passenger traffic saw the largest year-on-year decline in aviation history, falling by 65.9 percent compared to 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association. Flights were grounded, schedules reduced and thousands of pilots were either laid off or put on furlough for extended periods of up to 12 months.

Now, as vaccination programs pick up speed across some parts of the world and travel starts to rebound, airlines are beginning to reactivate their fleets and are summoning pilots back as they prepare to boost their schedules for the summer. But returning pilots can’t just pick up where they left off. They must undergo rigorous training programs that involve classes, exams and simulator sessions, which are determined by proficiency levels and the length of time since they have flown.

The process of retraining a large volume of pilots, who have been idle for different periods of time over the past year is complex and challenging. There is no “one size fits all” training model aviation experts say.

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