Rusty airline pilots ‘forget how to take-off’ after being grounded by pandemic

Many of us are having trouble remembering how to do our jobs after the Christmas break, but if airline pilots have forgotten the basics it’s a bit more worrying.

An internal memo from Australian airline Qantas reveals that some of its pilots and ground crew are making some dangerous errors as they come back from the long lockdown layoff.

The coronavirus pandemic led to many airlines cancelling flights, and now that aircrews are returning to work many expert pilots are having to re-learn their jobs.

“Routine items that used to be completed with a minimum of effort now occupy more time and divert attention away from flying the aircraft,” says the memo.

The document, obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald, reveals that the two-year disruption from the pandemic has “created a situation where expert pilots have lost recency and experienced a subsequent reduction in cognitive capacity”.

“Combined with reduced flying across the network, we recognise a flow on effect for flight crew’s focus and familiarity with the operation,” they said.

Quantas’s flight operations team keeps an eye on how the airline is running day-to-day, and their work is “especially important during the disrupted period of operations we have experienced over the last 19 months”.

Some of the “errors” logged by Quantas pilots over recent weeks include: “commencing take-off with park brake set” and “misidentification of altitude as airspeed”.

There are numerous other disturbing “threats” listed in the memo. In one case switches on the cockpit panels were left in the wrong position prior to take-off and there was also a number of was was described as “exterior inspection events”.

On June 21 last year, the crew of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner taking off from Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport with 106 passengers and 13 crew onboard found that they were unable to operate the plane’s landing gear correctly because it had been left locked into place by ground crews.

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Mick Quinn, a former head of safety at Emirates and an ex-manager of air-safety investigation at Qantas, told the Sydney Morning Herald that an extensive campaign of retraining was the only answer: “The only way is training, training and training, and simulator time,” he said.

“It is also about sticking to the absolute process [in the cockpit] so that everyone is in the same ballpark.”

A Qantas spokesperson commented: “Safety is our number one priority and all of the data shows that our pilots are coming back with the skills and confidence to do their job safely.”

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