Safety experts of all stripes agree that recent experience and frequent training make pilots safer. But why? What is it we forget how to do if we don’t fly for an extended period, or don’t undergo recurrent training?
I can see how activities that demand fine motor skills require frequent practice. Think of the golf swing. There are so many moving parts of a swing that we must consciously and subconsciously control it’s easy for me to see how practice is necessary to make a good swing. The term “muscle memory” is overused, but if there is such a thing it certainly must apply to swinging a golf club.
But does flying an airplane require a fine motor skill? Not really. Certainly proper and prompt control inputs are necessary to land on a gusty day, but compared to other physical activities such as shooting a basketball or launching a bowling ball, the physical control movements we make in an airplane are limited. Riding a bike seems to demand more physical skill than making control movements to fly an airplane, but they say we never forget how to ride a bike.
When you examine most serious or fatal accidents the root cause is not usually improper control movements but bad decision making. For example, when a pilot unintentionally stalls an airplane is the cause pulling back too hard, banking too steeply, not adding enough power? Or is the cause the decision to try to glide or climb over an obstruction without enough energy? Or to bank too steeply to try to save a late turn to final? Or to zoom too far after buzzing a friend’s house?
Do we forget the basics of minimum airspeed, maximum bank angles, glide range and so on if we don’t fly frequently? I don’t see how because we don’t practice flying the airplane beyond its limits through frequent flying.
My theory of why regular flying makes us safer is that it forces us to divide our attention in the cockpit. I think the really big pilot mistakes come when we tunnel in on a single objective and forget how multifaceted controlling an airplane can be.
When I don’t fly as often as usual I notice my instrument scan is the first to degrade. A well practiced instrument scan is automatic, even subconscious. You don’t look at one instrument and think about it. You just add that instrument’s data into the whole mental picture of your flight status.
Well, you say, you fly only VFR so an instrument scan doesn’t matter. Wrong. Totally wrong. There is not a single reliable way to know your airspeed by looking out the window. If you don’t continuously monitor your airspeed when maneuvering you have no way of knowing your margin above stall, or of landing long and fast. The instrument pilot scans the instruments in the panel to maintain situational awareness, but the VFR pilot must divide his scan between the windshield and at least the airspeed indicator, and to a lesser degree the altimeter.
I think the accident record shows clearly that many pilots are not maintaining a good scan, whether flying VFR or IFR. The evidence is there in the record of jet pilots who virtually never unintentionally stall the airplane. The reason is that airspeed awareness and control is beat into every jet pilot before they can get a type rating. The tolerance for flying below the target airspeed is zero and the price of going too slow is failure of the checkride and more training. In all phases of flight jet pilots continuously know the airspeed and know how much margin they have over the minimum.
The only way a jet pilot, just like any pilot, remains aware of airspeed is to scan the instrument and note the airspeed relation to the target. If the ability to scan instruments is the first pilot skill to degrade from infrequent flying, as I believe, then that explains why recent flight experience and training makes pilots safer. It’s really as fundamental as being able to scan and understand the key instruments that makes us safer, and that’s a skill that requires regular practice.
Why do you think a pilot who flies regularly is safer?