Rust Never Sleeps


I’m a retired airline captain, with some 25 years of line operations under my belt. After leaving behind the airline world, I bought a Beech Baron 55 to use on personal and business missions throughout the central U.S. Like so many during this pandemic, I stayed home and out of the cockpit earlier in 2020 in the hope doing so would allow public health officials to get a better handle on it. Also like so many others who have returned to the cockpit after shutdown orders were lifted, I found my skills and ability to get and stay ahead of the aircraft had deteriorated substantially over the period.

In my case, despite decades of accident/incident-free airline operations, I found that I had to stop and think about actions and decisions that only a few months earlier would have been automatic. I also found my basic skills—as reflected when performing tasks like programming the GPS and talking to ATC, as well as some flight maneuvers—lacked crispness and were not as reflexive as they should have been. My planning and decision-making also have suffered from disuse.

When flying for the airlines, I went through some kind of training at least every six months, usually involving a simulator session or two in which the instructors threw at me and my crew everything they could think of, including scenarios that had tripped up other pilots. I was embarrassed a few times, as all airline captains are on occasion, but I never thought I would lose so much proficiency over so short a time, as I now realize has happened to me this year.

I’ve scheduled some training with a multi-engine instructor and signed up for a multiday simulator session with one of the name-brand training organizations, with the idea of getting back the proficiency in the Baron I once had. It’s easy to think what happened to some other guy won’t happen to me. It’s also easy—too easy!—to chalk it all up to getting on in age.

If there is any moral to my story, it’s this: Staying out of the cockpit for an extended period—and not even thinking about flying—will result in a measurable and dangerous deterioration in your cockpit skills. The preferred way to address rust accumulation is to keep flying and not allow the rust to develop. That’s not always an option, and we all must confront the truth that our skills will deteriorate if we don’t use them.

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