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Lack of Flight Time is a Concern

Don’t believe that being “rusty” as a pilot is a real thing?  Read on.

On September 15, an Indonesian flight carrying 307 passengers and 11 crew to the northern city of Medan momentarily veered off the runway after landing, sparking an investigation by the country’s transport safety regulator.  It found the pilot had flown less than three hours in the previous 90 days. The first officer hadn’t flown at all since Feb. 1.

The incident underlines an emerging risk from the coronavirus pandemic: pilots aren’t getting enough opportunity to fly because airlines have grounded planes and scaled back operations due to a slump in demand for air travel.

In its preliminary report on the Lion Air incident, the Indonesian safety authority laid out the pilots’ experience, the approach of the plane, weather conditions and landing.  The pilot in command was a 48-year-old Airbus A330 flight instructor with about 17,000 hours flying experience; the 46-year-old first officer, who’d been working as a captain for Thai Lion Air before relocating to Indonesia in March, had a similar amount of flying hours.

On its approach, Flight 208 requested a change of runway due to stormy weather. At about 1,000 feet, the first officer handed control to the pilot. He then noticed that the plane was nearing the left edge of the runway and told the pilot to adjust. The right rudder pedal was applied after touching down but the left main landing gear went off the tarmac, breaking two runway lights.

Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee said the pandemic has made it harder to maintain pilot proficiency and flying experience.  The Lion Air aircraft involved was an Airbus SE A330, one of 10 in the carrier’s fleet.  Because Lion Air doesn’t have a simulator for the A330, its pilots are trained at third-party facilities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.  COVID-19 travel restrictions have made those harder to access.

“Regular flying keeps your mind in the cockpit,” said Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant who was an adviser to India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation. “Being away from flying for such a long time brings in some complacency.  Add loss of income, uncertainty about jobs or the future of the airline, that brings in additional stress.  With an increase in stress levels, proficiency drops.”