Returning to Work The hidden threats.

Capt William McBarnet. Director at Aquila

This presentation is the first of three that are designed to help you through the coming weeks and months, as we try to adapt to a new way of doing our job.

We have reviewed and researched the threats associated with return to work following extended absence. We also talked to a number of pilots with a range of experience levels. What we found was anxiety and worry on a number of levels which is a concern for the aviation community. We as pilots are expected to be competent, professional and focussed on our primary role of safe and efficient operation. The circumstances we find ourselves in today are unprecedented and we must rise to the challenge.

We can’t give you all the answers. We can, however, show you that your worries and concerns are widely shared with your peers, even if you may not have discussed them. We can explain why you might be feeling the way you are right now. We can also offer some techniques to help you structure your revision and learning to get the best out of your time.

It may be that you are feeling fine and looking forward to the challenge ahead. If so that’s great, perhaps you can help someone who isn’t feeling as strong. Maybe you are not concerned with work, but family life has become a challenge, a spouse who is furloughed and showing the strain. Young children requiring attention and home school, or older kids worried about their futures. Perhaps your credit card and mortgage debt are keeping you awake at night. Possibly, your company has reduced your pay and threatened job cuts. Maybe you know your company is using simulator assessments as redundancy criteria and your recurrent check is coming up.

Pilots are, by nature and training, fairly resilient. That said, it would be a mistake to assume we are also bullet proof. Take the time to read this presentation and, importantly, reflect honestly on your own thoughts and feelings.

In this presentation, we will look at the various hidden threats as we return from time off. First, skill fade. We all know it exists, but how can we manage it and ourselves effectively to ensure that skill fade doesn't reduce safety margins.

Second up is self confidence. Essential, you will probably agree, but there are hidden threats to making assumptions about our ability or when we allow self doubt and negative thoughts to affect us.

We then move on to distraction. A personal experience is followed by some practical suggestions to manage this insidious threat.

Finally, a quick look at motivation. This is a huge topic that we will cover more fully in future courses. Here we provide some food for thought about how your motivation can be constructive in your approach to return to work.

Skill Fade

Everyone acquires and loses knowledge at different rates. Depending on your initial learning experience, your underlying level of skill (expertise) and recency, skill fade will start to become evident in a number of ways.

Let’s define for ourselves what we mean by skill fade. For us it’s the loss of motor and cognitive skills over time when skills have not been practiced. It is a well-known phenomenon and is understood to contribute to the overall threat picture (UK CAA CAP1581 Pilot Training Review).

We tend to assume that skill fade only impacts manual flying (motor skills), leading to a loss of focus on the other competencies. But research shows this is not always true. Cognitive skills do fade and generally faster than motor skills. Whereas the end result is poor flying accuracy the root cause is often a cognitive one.

It is also true to say that experience is no protection from the effects of skill fade. Whereas motor skills will tend to be better ingrained in more experienced pilots, cognitive skills (decision making, situational awareness) will degrade for everyone. Initial rate of skill fade tends to be quick at first, then the curve flattens out with time towards a maintenance level, below which there is no further significant deterioration. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the greatest risk lies in the early months as skill fade may not be recognised within this time frame.

Skill fade has been shown to occur for a number of reasons in other industries. A recent report on emergency egress drills from oil rigs concluded that such things as the quality of the original skill acquisition, the complexity of the skill, how continuity training is carried out (ie testing versus relearning/refreshing), and the type of skill (motor versus cognitive), sat next to the more conventional reasons such as the time interval between training.

We use Mental models all the time to determine our situational awareness and in order to project our thinking forward. One of the consequences of skill fade is the degradation of your ability to project and form coherent mental models.

One of the hidden problems with skill fade is that, until you are called upon to demonstrate a skill, you might not know that the skill has been degraded. The skill might be fairly well hidden (for example, can you remember how to set up and fly a fully managed RNAV/GNSS approach, the SOP and the degraded Nav options?). We tend to concentrate on the effect on our manual flying skills because those are most obviously demonstrated in the simulator.

When we try to identify and isolate the factors affecting skill fade, it is useful to reference your Company competencies and the related behaviours associated with the competencies. However, knowledge of competencies is only part of the story. An understanding of what you need to do, and the way you need to think, to demonstrate the competencies is necessary in order to understand which skills are fading and why. The competencies are therefore a great way to direct your learning and revision.

Recency is a valid and well-known concept in aviation, but the rate of loss is individual and unpredictable across the aviation community, so just because you are current, that doesn’t necessarily make you competent. Remember the cognitive skills are likely to be degraded before motor skills, so challenge yourself and confirm your core skills and competencies regularly (Memory items, QRH contents etc).

Self Confidence

Elite sports performers generally show high levels of self-confidence which feeds their ability to perform under pressure. They also effectively use their arousal level (the feeling before competing, adrenaline, butterflies etc) to feed their confidence level.

Underlying confidence in your ability to complete the task is fundamental and underpins lots of other psychological factors. Confidence in your expertise, confidence in your knowledge, confidence in your mental fitness are all vital elements to a successful return to work.

This state of mind should not, however, be confused with over confidence. Over confidence leads you to assume skills and performance outside your expertise and can be very dangerous in an aviation context. A clear idea of your personal limitations, and consistent critical self-checking of your own performance will help.

Confidence also does not assume that you will never have negative thoughts and feelings. The difference comes with your core belief in your ability. For example, you may worry about the weather at your destination, the implications of a marginal approach, and what may be necessary if you cannot land – negative thoughts might arise. But you can still be confident about your skills and expertise in order to effect a safe landing or to divert should the need arise and raise your game to suit the situation.

One of the most effective strategies to enhance self confidence in sports performers is the setting of goals. Goals should be measurable and realistic. Luckily in aviation, both those criteria are easy to identify. You can read more about goals in our presentation, ‘Successful Personal Development’.

Another evident parallel with sports performers is that self-confidence is enhanced by those who train hard. In an aviation context, pilots who train hard are the pilots with good procedural knowledge. They will have a good attitude towards self-directed as well as company-directed learning. They are aware of their limitations and work hard to develop their skill and knowledge.


I know from personal experience that distraction is an insidious and destructive force on the flight deck. My personal distraction lesson was learnt during the consultation phase of a Thomas Cook base closure and redundancy programme. A badly timed conversation during the taxi resulted in a failure to complete the checks properly – the take-off was performed with the wrong flap setting.

Another recent example involved a British carrier A321 flight from Glasgow to London Heathrow where the crew set an incorrect flex temperature which reduced the acceptable take-off performance margin. The root cause was considered to be distraction.

No SOP, check list or procedure will effectively guard against distraction if you allow the condition to develop where these errors can happen. If you are distracted, you will inevitably omit something which will later revisit you. Chances are it won’t be catastrophic, but it will certainly reduce the safety margin.

The only answer is to really concentrate and to focus on personal discipline, effective leadership/teamwork (one of our competencies), and an insistence on the same from the crew. Call out the threat at the briefing stage and avoid or trap it by demonstrating effective flight deck management. Here’s an example; vary the format according to your company’s procedure:

Threats Brief: “Distraction is a threat today. Today we all received an email saying that the company is to make half the work force redundant and my pay is going down by 50%. I’m going to struggle financially (verbalise what the threat is and why it’s relevant). Errors might include incomplete/missing checks, briefings or procedures. What can you think of to mitigate this? …… Thank you (be interactive). As well as your great suggestion (show you value your crew input) I think we can manage this by strict adherence to the sterile flight deck rule. Please use active monitoring (Not sure what this is? Monitoring Matters UK CAA Paper 2013/02) to check my performance (Mitigating actions/management of the threat). Please call me out if I miss something (Give the crew permission to challenge you). Let’s set aside some time to talk about it during the turn-around (plan a time to discuss the problem so it isn’t left hanging).


What was it that made you want to become an airline pilot in the first place? For some of us it was a long time ago and our initial motivations are lost in time. For others the thoughts might be a little more recent. For all of us, attractive pensions and flexible contracts were probably not the main drivers.

For many of us, our motivations were aspirational, and we probably haven't revisited them for awhile. But now more than at any time, perhaps it's time to re-examine what we do and why we do it. As we face a struggle to maintain our quality of life - or even our careers- the reasons why we fly and the rewards we get from the experience should in part determine how we move forward.

We need to look at our motivation because it drives us to struggle, to succeed, to get up when we are knocked down. It has a huge effect on our sense of wellbeing. So we should have some understanding of what form motivation takes and whether we are doing all we can to develop our motivation in a healthy and constructive way.

Motivation is generally considered in two forms; either intrinsic (the motivation is internal and you derive pleasure from the task itself. You like to feel competent, that you did a good job), or extrinsic (the motivation is external and you derive pleasure from the rewards it brings you, such as pay rise or promotion).

In order to derive lasting satisfaction in your job, both motivations are required but intrinsic motivation is generally considered essential. You are unlikely to continue to enjoy your job for long unless you get a personal 'buzz' from doing it well.

So, when you sit down to start your revision for your recurrent sim, are you looking to do as well as you can, to learn something new or perhaps develop your skills , or are you only focussed on getting your licence signed and picking up your pay?

In order to develop intrinsic motivation skills you need to focus on your needs.

A feeling of competence is important - knowing what you are doing, and being capable of performing to a professional level, makes you feel good about yourself. This stems from the core competencies including: knowledge, leadership & team work and decision making.

You will also need to feel a sense of self determination - that you are in control of your own success. The feeling that you were responsible for the behaviour that led to your success is a strong motivational driver. The effects of furlough and unpaid leave remove some of this self determination and so can undermine intrinsic motivation.

Remove either of these competence or self-determination elements and intrinsic motivation can start to degrade.

As we discussed previously in the self confidence section, goals and goal setting skills feature highly in motivational strategy. You can read more about goals in 'Successful Personal Development', which you can find in the 'Our Courses' menu. Think about how your goals make you feel. Which are ego orientated (do they make you look good) and which are task orientated (do they make you feel good about having performed to the best of your ability). You are likely to need both, but task orientated goals are most beneficial in the longer term.

Set yourself achievable goals. For example, an Airbus pilot might think: 'In this session, I'm going to look at why a double RadAlt failure makes an approach really challenging, and how I can mitigate the threats'. Direct your work to achieve those goals that you have set for yourself. Refer to the competencies table frequently to direct your thoughts. Remember that a competency demonstrated in one context is very likely to be displayed in another, so you can allow your confidence to develop as you work.


Created by Aquila Jet Training Ltd.