Keeping Perishable Skills Fresh

Terry Palmer 2018 Fall

Proficiency is perishable. It’s up to you to keep it fresh.

Training in this industry is all about becoming proficient and staying proficient.

Becoming proficient with an aircraft for both pilots and mechanics requires an extensive initial training course that covers all the systems, procedures, and checklists. After that, proficiency can be maintained through everyday duties and responsibilities.

What about those skills that we don’t use very often? If you have maintained your IFR currency with the minimum requirements for the year, are you ready for that moment when you realize that you are now in the clouds? If you haven’t worked on a turbine engine for five years, are you ready to do that overhaul?

Our challenge is to sustain perishable skills. These are skills that we tend to forget over time, and they can be physical, like committing to an autorotation, or cognitive, such as knowing when to commit to an autorotation.

When we don’t repeat skills very often, we don’t experience the repetition necessary to build muscle memory or cognitive pathways. This is what happens when you learn how to program your new phone. A few months go by, and then you realize you can’t remember how to use some functions. You forgot these perishable skills because you hadn’t done them in some time.

Perishable skills for pilots include instrument procedures, autorotations, or any abnormal or emergency procedure. For a maintenance technician, a perishable skill is any procedure or troubleshooting task not performed on a regular basis.

The most effective way to stay proficient in these perishable skills is training and repetition. Your skills—even the perishable ones—will stay the longest when you learn them to the point of mastery, rather than competency. And to maintain your perishable skills, you need recurrent training: periodically returning to the subject to study or practice more.

Recurrent training should be viewed by the pilot or mechanic as an opportunity to fine-tune skills that are weak or easily forgotten. This requires some internal honest assessment by them to recognize the areas where their skills need to be reinforced. They should consider the training to be an asset instead of a chore.

In some cases, our regulators require additional training to keep our perishable skills current. Regulatory agencies require landings, night flight, and instrument currency on a scheduled basis to maintain proficiency. Mechanics with inspection authorization must provide proof of recently completed tasks or go through biannual training to maintain that authorization. To maintain their instructor status, flight instructors must also prove they have kept current.

Proficiency can also be supported by reading articles and accident reports that discuss the indications and solutions for various events. The knowledge for these skills can be strengthened by studying manuals, doing computer-based training modules, or “armchair flying.”

The Blue Angels use armchair flying to regularly review their entire flight routine. The team sits in a conference room, talking through every step and maneuver in real time. This is an excellent method for reviewing normal flight procedures.

Recognizing indications of abnormal or emergency situations, however, may require more of a visual approach. The use of simulators and real-life scenarios in pilot recurrent training has proven to be quite effective.

The International Helicopter Safety Team has lots of resources that can help pilots and maintenance technicians with issues that we don’t see in our normal operations. Keep current on these resources and share them with your colleagues.

The Internet community also offers a host of resources that will help you to stay current on best practices, including how-to videos. Try it for yourself. Ask your Internet browser a question on a procedure or potential situation in an aircraft and see what you find. Almost everything has a video or internet reference.

You can find information on start procedures, walk-around inspections, emergency indications, and how to track rotor blades. However, do verify that your Internet source for this information is solid. Check details for accuracy, and make sure the article or video references the manufacturer’s published procedures.

As a helicopter professional, please keep in mind that some of your skills are perishable. You can maintain your proficiency by recognizing this fact and continually addressing the challenge. The key to maintaining proficiency in perishable skills is to take recurrent training seriously.  

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