‘Rusty’ pilots making mistakes as they had so much time off during Covid crisis

"Rusty" airline pilots are making mistakes partly because of long pandemic lay-offs.

A least a dozen mishaps have been reported to an anonymous reporting system run by NASA since May last year.

One pilot took three attempts to land on a windy day, another lined up to land on the wrong runway and one forgot to employ anti-icing measures designed to protect vital flight instruments.

Among the most common errors are coming in to land too fast or too high, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The problems have come partly because of the extended lay-offs caused by some of the lowest demand for air travel in decades.

NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System was developed so pilots and airline crew members could anonymously report mechanical glitches and human errors without fear of reprisal from airplane manufacturers or airline management.

In one report a pilot accidentally pushed the button to disengage the autopilot and the first officer on a different flight made an unusually steep bank after misreading the instruments in the cockpit.

In each case, the pilots and first officers blamed the errors on being out of practice.

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Richard G McSpadden Jr, senior vice-president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's air safety institute said regular flying helps ensure safety in the air. He said: "The key to flying safely is frequency. You are not as sharp if you haven’t flown for a while."

The officer who forgot to run on the anti-icing mechanism said in a report: "Because I had not flown in a few months, I was rusty. I felt that my recollection was strong enough, but in reality I should have taken some time to review the standard operating procedures."

Another pilot, preparing to pull a passenger jet away from an airport gate, forgot to disengage the parking brake – damaging a part of a towing vehicle that was trying to pull the plane to the runway.

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So far, there have been no reports out-of-practice pilots caused accidents that have injured passengers. Aviation experts say backup systems in modern passenger jets prevent minor oversights from becoming serious accidents.

However, an Airbus 330 passenger jet trying to land at Kualanamu International Airport in Indonesia on September 15 veered off the runway and onto the adjoining dirt. None of the passengers were injured.

Indonesia’s transportation safety agency, the KNKT, concluded "during the COVID-19 pandemic the operation department had difficulties trying to maintain pilot proficiency".

The agency also said the plane’s second in command had not flown in the previous 90 days and the pilot had flown less than three hours in the previous 90 days.

The International Air Transport Association reported a steep increase last spring in the rate of planes making "unstable approaches", which typically occur when pilots try to land at too high a speed or without enough thrust and have to make last-minute adjustments.

The airlines group reported that the rate of "unstable approaches" jumped from about 13 or 14 for every 1,000 flights before the pandemic to more than 35 per 1,000 in May. The rate increased over last summer but returned to pre-pandemic levels in the last few months.

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