Flight Plan

Getting back in the cockpit after a long break

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on May 26, 2020

For experienced pilots, the rustiness is gone very soon   -  santofilme

Pilots getting back to duty after the lockdown face the task of being up to date

As India partially resumes its flights after a lockdown of over 10 weeks on flying, pilots other than those who operated cargo and evacuation flights during the lockdown will be entering the cockpit after weeks.

While there are no official figures, it is estimated that between 80 and 85 per cent of the pilots in India had not been inside a cockpit since March 25, when the ban on domestic and international flights started. In regular times, the rules of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation stipulate that the maximum flight time limitation for pilots is 35 hours in seven consecutive days and 100 hours in 28 consecutive days or pilots have to complete so many hours of flying in a week and a month.

Given that the pilots had not been flying when they got back to their routines, they not only have to handle the social distancing and other protective norms put in place in the post Covid 19 aviation sector but, more importantly, they also have to ensure that they are up to date with their skills. This is important as some pilots maintain that there are certain normal Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that need to be adhered to, to ensure nothing is missed in setting up for the flight and completing it safely.

“Since you haven’t done it for a while, you get a little out of practice, so you need to refresh your memory before you finally step into the cockpit,” said one pilot, adding that the rustiness passes very soon depending on the experience that the pilot has.

Another pilot pointed out that you counteract this by being very cautious and conservative on the initial flights. “The focus is more on being stable on approach early instead of on fuel saving by taking flaps and gear out a little later in the approach,” he explained. Flaps are high lift devices. They move down to increase the curvature of the wing which increases lift. But as they move down further for landing, the drag increases proportionately.

Similarly, as you lower the landing gear, it causes increased drag as it is sticking out from under the aircraft and spoiling the streamlined flow of air around the aircraft’s main body. The increase in thrust (engine power) required to overcome this drag causes a higher fuel flow. Thus, the aim is to delay both the extension of the flaps to landing position and lowering the landing gear as late as safely possible.

“Both these are not really complex for an experienced pilot, they need to be timed correctly. Any delay might cause the aircraft to be too high on approach, requiring a higher descent rate close to the ground. Or it may come in too fast, making it difficult to slow down to the appropriate landing speed, which will permit you to take landing flaps and land and stop on the available runway length,” said a pilot.

Then there is also the issue of being updated on any new information that may have come out during the interim. In normal times, this is addressed by tasking pilots to do online courses specifically on these areas. However, little is known right now on what new information is available after flights across the world completely stopped or ran on truncated schedules.

One airline in India has groups where questions are floated and discussed. This is in addition to the formal mandated online courses and the reading material that pilots have to go through to refresh their memories and procedures before getting into the cockpit.

To further ensure that the pilots are properly acclimatised before operating a flight, they also undergo an observation flight when they sit behind the operating crew and observe them and hence refresh their memories in a real life and practical scenario. However, what pilots can do is acquire technical information in modules to get them back in the groove and rely on their flying skills which actually cannot be learnt and are inherent.

Published on May 26, 2020

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