Aviation Safety Letter 3/2003

Personnal Currency — And we're not talking about pesos...

While listening to the monotonous checklist being read out by my co-pilot, who happened to be one of our training pilots spoon-feeding me through a recurrent training flight, my right hand was blindly fiddling on the lower electrical panel trying to locate those two items he had mentioned a minute earlier. The battery was not even on and I was already hanging by the tailpipe. bad start indeed, but also a good wake-up call.

Of course I had several good excuses for my apparent lack of familiarity; as is often the case when you are flying a desk more often than the real deal, I had not flown that aircraft type much in the previous months, maybe three or four short trips where I was able to hide behind the checklist and just go through the motions. As circumstances would have it, my training flight kept being delayed by inexplicable forces of fate - weather, aircraft, training pilot, travel, kid got sick, car broke down, etc. I assume such delays never happen to others. I hadn't spent much time in the books either. I guess I wasn't able to find a couple hours in my busy schedule to remind myself how to save my neck at 20 000 ft if things went wrong, which they never do I reassured myself.

This little episode opened-up a debate with my colleagues: how can a pilot really remain current? How do you know if you are at the apex of your aircraft knowledge curve? The difficulty, as I understand it, is that the standards of proficiency and currency for each individual pilot vary wildly given the array of personal and professional circumstances. Therefore, it is practically impossible to formulate an all-in-one solution because of the myriad of different conditions and situations.

Airline, commuter and commercial helicopter pilots who fly frequently, and often on one aircraft type at a time, can normally be confident that they are current. Of course, these operators also have desk-bound part-time pilots who may fit squarely in that round hole.

On the private side, there are a lot of serious pilots who fly often, who own their own aircraft and who keep up with the books. Those are the "enthusiasts," and they too can feel reasonably comfortable with their knowledge and skills. It is the significant gap between these two extremes that should concern us.

Take for instance the young commercial pilot who flies three or four aircraft types in a small, single-pilot IFR operation; or the "mature" private pilot who earned his licence before the zipper was invented and claims to fly regularly (i.e., once a year); or pilot managers, who are dealing with the daily headaches of staffing, drumming-up business, juggling schedules, putting out fires all day long in an office environment, and who are suddenly thrust into a cockpit for impromptu flying? Under these conditions, how can anyone claim to be on top of it, at all times?

And the ultimate, unanswerable question. how many hours a month or per year does it take to remain current? Well, we don't know two pilots who will have the same answer to that one. "It all depends." is what we hear most often. It depends on each individual pilot's history, qualifications, experience, type of flying, and so on. A pilot with several thousand hours of experience may have a good flying background, but still requires, like rookie pilots, regular exposure to remain sharp. Take a few minutes to analyze your own situation and currency level - for all aircraft types you may be flying. Indeed, when everything works as advertised, flying is relatively easy. But how many of us feel sometimes, like I did on that day, that we are hanging by the tailpipe?

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