Pilot ‘Seasoning’: Degradation of Flying Skills

According to The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (2005), human skill-based errors account for over 80% of general aviation accidents. Over 80% of general aviation (GA) accidents are caused due to a breakdown in the human factor in the flights in question. Skill-based errors also account for a large portion of the human factors related to accidents yearly. While it is on a slight decline, human factors play the largest role in GA accidents yearly, what is not so clear is that the most general aviation accidents, especially in light sport or training size airplanes does not involve inexperienced or student pilots. On the contrary, they involve mainly “seasoned” pilots to include, Instrument Rated Pilots, CPL, CFIs and ATPs with over 300 hours of total flight time, with accidents accruing mostly on clear VFR days. When coupled with the false sense of security that comes with flying a very familiar aircraft in an unfamiliar situation or environment, seasoning can lead to complacency in the operations of an aircraft, as at this time most attention Is placed on the external environment, situations or internal factors within the pilot’s head. Experience and seasoning is a leading cause in general aviation accidents that are caused by skill-based errors on the side of human factors in the flight environment, leading experienced pilots to omit steps in, or completely not follow standard operations and regulatory procedures while operating a very familiar aircraft.

Key Takeaways

  1. Pilot Seasoning: A pilot becoming so experienced or comfortable with an aircraft and flight environment that complacency insidiously creeps in.
  2. When pilot skills are needed: Pilot skills that have been degraded over time are sometimes called for particularly when those skills are not at their best.
  3. Human Factor: The most dangerous thing about disorientation and the cockpit, is that when a pilot is actually disoriented in the cockpit they are not aware of the disorientation.
  4. Case study: The accident case study illustrates the importance of staying on top of important pilot skills, even though those skills might not “seem” particularly important at the time.

Seasoning in the cockpit

Seasoning here is defined as; a pilot becoming so experienced or comfortable with an aircraft and flight environment that complacency insidiously creeps in, causing the pilot to inadvertently or blatantly skip procedures and disregard policies and regulations, or neglect to stay up-to-date with certain piloting skills and proficiencies, particularly if they are not frequently used.

The dangers of flying an airplane are exacerbated by pilots’ familiarity and seasoning within the aircraft, such conditions often are the major contributing factor to accidents caused as a result of the human factors. There are a few signs a pilot might become seasoned or complacent in the flight environment. Over-reliance on automation is a major sign that a pilot may be becoming complacent in the cockpit. This is particularly dangerous, especially for actual skillful “stick and rudder” flying. It is at times like this when the pilot realizes that complacency in the cockpit has caused pilot skills to have been degraded. Degradation in pilot skills can be very imperceptible and insidious. It is because of this fact why complacency in the cockpit can be so dangerous.

Furthermore, as pilots become more seasoned and familiar with the flight environment and the cockpit, they begin to cut corners on simple procedures. While in of themselves these “corner-cuttings” are not very serious, it is the cumulative effect of cutting corners on procedures that are very dangerous. Here is how it usually unfolds;

Scott, a pilot, becomes very familiar with the aircraft he has been flying for hundreds of hours. He then realizes that by memorizing some simple procedures he can save time in the cockpit — here again, this is not an issue. Scott then begins to make small transgressions on procedures that could lead to incidents, however, because most times the circumstances are such that these transgressions do not lead to an incident or accident, he feels quite confident in his actions. This goes on for hundreds of hours of flying time. Then, one day when the stars are aligned in the wrong way and “Fate the Hunter” comes calling, Scott finds that the situation calls for a level of flying skills and professionalism at the best of qualities, for Scott those qualities have left long ago. The situation then becomes exacerbated by the degradation of Scott’s ability to handle the procedures to the level of precision needed. So in tragic inevitability, he makes a dangerous situation into a deadly one, it is at this point the supreme hunter “Faith” moves in for the awesome kill, and all is lost.

A Case Study

In the case of N440H that led to the fatal injury of 3 people is a great case to look at. Here we have a 66-year-old instrument-rated pilot with an ATP rating and a single engine and commercial pilot license. The pilot also has approximately 4000 hours of flying time. However, according to the NTSB (2017), “The pilot’s logbook was not recovered.”, (para.5). The pilot on an IFR flight plan with prevailing IMC lost the vacuum system and subsequently lost control of the aircraft less than two minutes after leaving VFR on top and descended into clouds.

This seasoned pilot might have allowed his partial-panel skills to have eroded, due to not having to fly partial-panel outside of training over his approximately 4000 hours of flying time. Another factor that may have further exacerbated the situation was that the pilot might have felt confident enough with his partial-panel flying skills not to have air traffic control (ATC) know the true gravity of the situation he was in. A partial-panel in IMC is a serious matter, and all pilots that experience this must let ATC know the true gravity of the situation. The pilot must not only declare an emergency but ensure that ATC understands that the pilot must remain VFR and out of clouds as much as possible to enable a successful and safe landing.

In addition, pilots should never overestimate their skill sets in any situation, since the very skills they have come to believe to be adequate are actually seasoned, “corner-cutting” skills that are not of the best quality. Indeed, in situations such as the one that the pilot of N440H found himself in, the skill sets needed for such a situation are of the highest quality, which the pilot did not possess at that time.

The Human Factor

It matters not the skill set of the pilot, whether the skill set is at a high bar or the skill set is low, if a pilot allows him or herself to become disoriented while flying IMC, the consequences can be deadly. The most dangerous thing about disorientation and the cockpit is not taught normally during the disorientation training, this is the fact that;

when a pilot is actually disoriented in the cockpit they are not aware of the disorientation.

Once the pilot becomes aware of the disorientation then they’re no longer disoriented, they usually quickly correct aircraft attitude to correspond with reality.

Furthermore, pilots who generally become disoriented in flight, being unaware of the disorientation begin to trust more and more in their experiences, senses, and familiarities, and less in the aircraft equipment or external help such as ATC.

Finally, being tunneled vision or focused on getting the particular destination can be very dangerous. Pilots sometimes become tunnel vision on getting there — get-there-itis, so focused on the end goal that during an emergency situation where a better alternative opens up, even when being told directly that a better alternative(s) is available, somehow the pilot’s mind constantly blocks out the other alternative(s). Coupled with loss of situational awareness, disorientation and an emergency situation with tunnel vision, a pilot can easily inadvertently seal his faith.

Additional facts from the NTSB

Flight History

According to the findings of the NTSB report of the accident of N440H (2017), “On May 3, 2016, at 1542 eastern daylight time, a Beech V35B airplane, N440H, experienced an in-flight breakup near Syosset, New York. The airline transport pilot and two passengers were fatally injured, and the airplane was destroyed. The pilot was operating the airplane as a 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91 personal flight. Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) existed near the accident site about the time of the accident, and an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan was filed for the planned flight to Robertson Field (4B8), Plainville, Connecticut. The flight originated from Grand Strand Airport, North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, about 1240” (para.9).

In addition the NTSB report stated that, “According to air traffic control (ATC) transcripts provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), about 1522, the pilot checked in with ATC and stated that he was level at 7,000 ft. About 1 minute later, he reported to a controller that the vacuum system had failed and that he had lost the associated gyroscopic instruments and part of the instrument panel, and he asked for the easiest approach to descend to the destination airport. The pilot then stated that the flight was currently operating in visual flight rules (VFR) on top of clouds and that he wanted to continue VFR at 7,000 ft to his destination airport because he did not want to descend into the clouds. The controller asked the pilot if he wanted to declare an emergency, and the pilot stated, “yes,” and confirmed that he wanted to proceed to his destination airport because the “weather’s…better there.” The controller then briefed the next controller along the airplane’s flight route”, (2017)(para.10)

Also from the NTSB report (2017), “The next controller subsequently confirmed that the pilot was declaring an emergency. At 1529, the pilot requested the weather for the “Hartford-Bradley area”(near his destination) and the controller advised the pilot that the reported weather at Hartford included an overcast ceiling of 1,600 ft and that it looked like Hartford had the best weather conditions compared to alternate nearby airports. The pilot then requested radar vectors for the GPS approach to 4B8, which the controller acknowledged. He then instructed the pilot to proceed direct to Bridgeport, Connecticut, which the pilot acknowledged. The pilot then reported that the flight had entered IMC. At 1538, the pilot reported that he had just lost a “little bit” of control. The controller told him to turn left to 060°, which the pilot acknowledged. At 1539, the pilot reported that more of the instruments had failed and that he was turning to 060° and trying to get back to 7,000 ft. At 1541, the controller provided the pilot with the weather conditions at Republic Airport (FRG), Farmingdale, New York, and asked him if he would like to try to land there; however, no further communications were received from the pilot” (para.11)

The Pilot

From the NTSB report of the accident of N440H (2017), the following was noted regarding the pilot, “The pilot held an airline transport pilot certificate with an airplane multiengine land rating. He also held a commercial pilot certificate with an airplane single-engine land rating. His most recent FAA third-class medical certificate was issued on September 3, 2014. At that time, he reported a total flight experience of 4,000 hours. The pilot’s logbook was not recovered” (para.13).

Conclusion

While it is very easy to sit in an air-conditioned room in a comfortable chair and write a paper on what may lead pilots into complacency, seasoning and subsequent fatal accidents. It is very important to remember that while experience is a wise teacher, it can also be correctly called the “spoiling grandmother”. Many pilots fall victim to the latter naming for experience, as it is easy to succumb to experience and seasoning because it is a comfort zone. It is the place we know and one we much rather operate from. The problem here, however, is that what we know doesn’t always coincide with what we should know. Experience and seasoning are insidious, it happens over time to everyone in every field and every genre of life. So the way for us pilots to get out of this dilemma, the dilemma of wanting to feel comfortable and confident, yet not wanting to be lulled into an inevitable fate. The only way out of this dilemma is to be uncomfortable, to ensure that we are always challenging ourselves to learn more, to do more, to ensure we stay fresh with the skills we already know and learn new ones. We know, this is not the ease and comfort we so crave from experience and seasoning, but it is exactly what is needed to get us and our passengers home safely and in one piece.

References

Beechcraft Shop Manual (1996). Bonanz 35 Series SERIALSD-lTHROUGH0110119,EXCEPTD-10097. Wichita, Kansas 67201.: Beechcraft.

National Transportation Safety Board. (2017, June 26). National Transportation Safety Board Aviation Accident Final Report. Retrieved from https://app.ntsb.gov/pdfgenerator/ReportGeneratorFile.ashx?EventID=20160503X70529&AKey=1&RType=HTML&IType=FA

AOPA Air Safety Institute (2017, Nov 17) Accident Case Study: Single Point Failure. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sfHlzv6Rlk

Accident scene image retrieved from: http://www.kathrynsreport.com/2016/05/beech-v35b-bonanza-n440h-fatal-accident.html

Thank you for reading this week’s On Aviation™ full article. Do you believe that ‘seasoning’ should be a concern for all pilots? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and remember to continue the conversation on our Twitter and Instagram.

Orlando — On Aviation™

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