Flying out of the pandemic

Although is obviously early both to say what caused the A320 crash in Karachi and how long it will be before we are returning to pre-pandemic traffic levels, there are some threats in the months ahead that cannot be ignored. No matter what kind of aviation you are involved with, it is highly likely that your flying activities have been on a halt much as most other aspects of our lives have been. With the honorable exception of the freighters, fighting the pandemic directly and covering for most of the belly cargo network lost due to the lack of passenger flights, pretty much everyone else in aviation has been flying less, perhaps not at all, during the last couple months. That is not healthy, either for humans or machines.

Walking to airplane
Returning to the cockpit after a long time away is a good reason to be cautious.

And I am not talking about the awful feeling of uncertainty, or even worse, of having lost one’s job. Neither am I talking about how much it hurts for those who love to fly not to be up there. But technically, we are talking about proficiency. Many civil aviation agencies worldwide are working on extending some validities when it comes to licenses. It is a necessary and welcome measure when everything in practical life has become so much more complicated, and some of our many documents have little direct effect on our skills if postponed for a month or two.

Yet, not everything can be worked with such ease. One example is the three landings in 90 days rule. Yes, it is old, and yes, it is arbitrary. For a long-haul pilot who usually lands once or twice every month anyway, it may not make that big difference. But as with many other legal requirements, it has been written in blood. It is there to protect us from ourselves and as a good reminder of how much our skills decay when not used.

This can be applied to every field in life, of course, but if there is anything essential in aviation, it is proficiency. Like I often argue with those who think they are much better than others because they have a tailwheel endorsement, all previous experience is welcome but not all is essential. In aviation, what you really need to be good at is at the kind of operation you are doing at that moment. And that is why we have proficiency and recency standards, while certificates are valid virtually forever.

If in normal times we would be picky with someone with an IFR rating but little to no recent experience in IMC, why would we relax now? Same goes with landing recency, multi-engine flight training, and all other pilot skills that must be kept sharp in order to ensure safety.

Like I said earlier, it is too early to know how long it will take before we are back to something that resembles normality. But all available data shows most of the world has now started to get out of the other side of this unprecedented crisis. The tide looks to have turned, and since mid-April, when over 17,000 airliners were parked at hundreds of fields worldwide, now part of the fleet is slowly but surely coming back into service. And similar movements have been seen throughout the entire industry.

We all must do our share to ensure that this transition is as smooth and safe as it can be. Be sure to read your airplane manuals, refresh yourself on regulations and emergency procedures, take another glance at the charts and NOTAMs, and recall all those memory items. And as we always need to be ready, during every takeoff, to lose an engine, do not let complacency or even the enthusiasm of being back in the game drive your attention away from this possibility. Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant.

Airplanes are living creatures. They have their own mood, their own idiosyncrasies, and from there comes a great deal of their charm. As Ernest K. Gann so well reminds us, it is our job as pilots to “exploit their qualities and to compensate for their faults.” After being on the ground for so long, they might throw a bunch of faults at us. Every pilot knows how surprising an aircraft can be after going through major maintenance, and depending on what we see on the books, we even brief for them. Be careful with your circuit breakers, check your controls extensively, watch your engine run-up and systems closely.

Airliners parked
Airplanes are not meant to sit for months on end.

To keep these birds on the ground for weeks and months in a row requires a number of special procedures by maintenance teams. Not all might have been done properly, or worked as planned. Take that into consideration. Never before have mechanics everywhere had to deal with such an amount of preserving work at the same time, and even more importantly, with different tasks.

Airplanes demand different kinds of measures for medium and long-term storage. These decisions were made in a kind of rush when the pandemic scared Europe in mid-March, but no one at the time knew exactly how long it was going to take before airplanes could fly again. And despite those already resuming their rosters, and with demand picking up as summer approaches, we still don’t know, to be honest.

Mechanics are our angels on earth, but they are humans too, and have been exposed to an incredible pressure to get these airplanes grounded efficiently. Therefore, the possibility that something was missed on the complex process is fair enough to deserve an extra thought. Remember that every hole can become a nest, every electric component can get dusty, and corrosion is a huge factor in many places.

It’s also good to remember that the whole aviation system is going through the same problem. Air traffic controllers are not working as much, neither are security staff, and on top that we all have new sanitary procedures to deal with—some of which can get us easily distracted or even limit our senses.

So, keep up to the task of getting these machines back to life. We are probably about to see in the next months and years a rise in traffic that will reproduce decades of industry expansion. It will be quite a sight. We shall not fall into the trap of overlooking it.

16 Comments

  • “Many civil aviation agencies worldwide are working on extending some validities when it comes to licenses. It is a necessary and welcome measure when everything in practical life has become so much more complicated, and some of our many documents have little direct effect on our skills if postponed for a month or two.”

    Necessary and welcome? Ouch! Time and experience has created the safety standards that have been proven and must be followed. At what point did the FAA think that safety standards and the subsequent reviews and validations would be considered “non-essential?” Yes, even if postponed a month or two… there is a reason that there is not a *range* of time for these reviews. Bottom line: big mistake. Some, most, maybe all of these services should never have been put on “pause.”

    • Totally agree, Mike. The “skill” sensitive ones – although also arbitrary – haven’t, as I mention in the following paragraph. Hopefully all them are going to be recovered as soon as possible. Cheers!

  • I guess I don’t understand. Around here flight ops have increased substantially. The airline pilots are all flying their personal aircraft more now that they aren’t out on trips. People working from home have more time (no commute) so they are getting in more hours. Even with social distancing people around here are just flying more. It is interesting to see people who usually fly less, flying more and clearly improving their proficiency.

    • It is a side effect of the 121 flying less – the same way the freighters are flying more to compensate for the loss of belly cargo on passenger flights. Every crisis have opportunities, after all. I’m not to the point of having an aircraft on my own yet – and even if I had, this is one of those moments where most of us have to hold the cash for the uncertainty of the near future. But I am glad for those who are still flying well. Hope to join them soon.

  • Same situation in Interior and Northern Alaska, more flying going on for some of the 135 Operators. One of the big spending Operators, decided it couldn’t handle the debt it had accrued, and at the beginning of the Chinese Wuhan Virus declared Chapter 11 protection, then shut down completely! This situation meant their mail and freight moved over to the other carriers capable of handling it. What initially looked like a slowdown, became an expansion of routes to cover the big spenders exit…

    • Some interesting movements going on all over the world. For sure the long therm growing forecasts for aviation are secure. But so much will change in the short period over the next months that is hard to know exactly who will prevail out of this mess.

  • Personally, I haven’t curbed my flying. My Tailwind W8 and I have continued to stay familiar with each other.
    The $100.00 hamburger has changed but is still available to do.
    I test flew a new propeller for my bird today and heard many aviators aviating. Keep you and your birds warmed up. Enjoying flying doesn’t have to be flying somewhere. As Richard Bach once wrote..” There’s always the sky ” and ” anywhere is ok “

  • Always practicing our pilot skills (even being at home). We have to pray for our lives and flights back on track, congratulations Rafael, thanks for sharing!

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