AOPA Online Members Only -- Currency vs. Proficiency: Current vs. Proficient

Currency vs. Proficiency

Current vs. Proficient

By Bill J. Singleton (From FAA Aviation News, October 1998)

In recent years. aircraft accident data compiled by the NTSB indicate that the failure of the pilot in command to maintain control of the aircraft has been cited as a recurring probable cause of a number of aircraft accidents, With the inclusion of stall/spin related events, the number of accident investigations that are concluded with this brief and compelling statement increases dramatically. In fact, the most prevalent first occurrence identified in almost one-fourth of all aircraft accidents over the past 15 years is loss of control during ground or flight operations. Furthermore, the FAA has identified "Failure to Maintain Directional Control" and "Improper Operation of Flight Controls" as two of the most frequent cause factors of general aviation accidents. This trend is especially troubling considering the very essence of pilot responsibility is control of the aircraft in all flight regimes.

Accidents which result from loss of aircraft control typically involve multiple contributing factors, the most significant of which is pilot proficiency. Proficiency, by definition, is the state of performing a given skill with expert correctness. Unlike other activities, however, proficiency as a pilot encompasses a wide range of required knowledge and skills, including the ability to operate the aircraft in a precise and coordinated manner, an understanding of the regulatory requirements for operations in the national airspace system, and a knowledge of the aircraft and related systems. Furthermore, a pilot must be able to continuously evaluate the effects of a dynamic meteorological environment on the conduct of the flight. Pilot proficiency, therefore, relates to the pilot's ability to perform all tasks associated with the safe conduct of a flight with expert correctness.

In a 1901 speech to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright stated, that practice is the key to the secret of flying." Although this sentiment was expressed soon after the Wright Brother's first experimental expedition to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the concept is as applicable for pilots today as it was almost a century ago. The importance of maintaining proficiency in critical aviation skills in today's complex operational environment increases proportionally with continuing advances in aircraft design and technology. The FAA, recognizing the importance of proficiency in these critical skills, created regulations to define the minimum level of activity required for a pilot to exercise the privileges of his or her pilot certificate.

The first of these regulatory requirements is addressed in FAR 61.56, Flight Review. This regulation states that no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft unless that person has accomplished a flight review in an aircraft for which the pilot is rated within the preceding 24 calendar months. This review requires a minimum of one hour of ground training which must include a discussion of current FAR Part 91 General Operating and Flight Rules. The flight portion of the review must include one hour of flight training on those maneuvers and procedures that, at the discretion of the person giving the review, are necessary for the pilot to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of his or her pilot certificate. Of course, the flight review must be conducted by an authorized flight instructor and a record of the satisfactory completion of the review must be entered into the pilot's logbook or permanent record.

The second regulatory requirement is addressed in FAR 61.57, Recent Flight Experience. This regulation states that no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days. These takeoffs and landings must have been accomplished in an aircraft of the same category (airplane. glider. etc.), and the pilot must have acted as the sole manipulator of the flight controls.

The rationale for these regulations is based, in part, on certain aspects of the human learning process. Professor Edward L. Thorndike, an early pioneer in educational psychology, theorized that the ability of an individual to learn new skills, or to retain previously acquired skills, is influenced by certain conditions. These conditions, referred to as Thorndike's Laws, have served as the foundation of aviation instruction for many years. The first of Thorndike's Laws that pertain to a pilot's ability to accomplish specific tasks is the Law of Exercise, which states that tasks most often repeated are best remembered. Consequently. to maintain a minimum level of competency in a specific task. it is important to perform the task on a regular basis. In other words. the old adage "practice makes perfect" is good advice.

Professor Thorndike also suggested that tasks most recently performed are also best remembered. This means that not only is it important to repeat tasks on a periodic basis but within a recent time period as well. This principle is referred to as the Law of Recency. The influence of these conditions on the pilot's ability to perform certain tasks illustrates the importance of conducting critical flight operations on a periodic and recent basis. Although regulations pertaining to recency of experience and recurrent flight training attempt to ensure that pilots conduct these critical flight operations on a periodic basis, accidents occurring during critical phases of flight continue to plague the entire general aviation community.

To address this dilemma, it is important to first distinguish between being current and being proficient. Remember that proficiency, by definition, means performing a given skill with expert correctness. In contrast, currency simply refers to being up to date or occurring within a recent period of time. These definitions are useful in illustrating the point that being current in a particular task does not necessarily imply proficiency at that task, If we apply these definitions to the recency of experience requirements specified in the regulations, it becomes evident that a pilot. while legally current, may not be adequately proficient in certain critical flight skills to act as pilot in command.

In 1983, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University conducted a study designed to measure the skill retention levels of newly certificated pilots and to determine how accurately these pilots were able to predict their own level of personal proficiency. The results of this research provide some interesting insight into potential cause factors of the most frequent types of aircraft accidents.

Primarily, the study revealed that general aviation pilots suffer a significant degree of cognitive and flight skill loss within a short period of time following the completion of structured flight training. Cognitive skill loss, in this case, refers to pilot judgement and decision-making ability. The areas of flight skill loss most affected include critical flight operations such as takeoffs and landings, stall recognition and recovery, minimum controllable airspeed. and emergency procedures. This finding is especially relevant for the general aviation community considering that more than 70% of all reported aircraft accidents occur during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. Furthermore, stall/spin events, loss of aircraft control, and takeoff emergencies represent a substantial percentage of the takeoff and landing accidents that occur each year.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the study, however, was the finding that a pilot's ability to predict and evaluate his or her own skill retention levels for specific flight tasks is negligible. Simply stated, pilots are seldom accurate in assessing their own level of proficiency in a given task. This is especially true for infrequently performed maneuvers such as emergency procedures. The inability to assess accurately personal proficiency combined with the potential for loss of critical flight skills helps to explain why in-flight emergencies continue to pose such a formidable challenge to aviation safety. In many cases, the FAA mandated flight review is the only exposure many pilots have to recurrent training in emergency procedures. However, the Embry-Riddle study suggests that the flight review required by the regulations may not be sufficiently frequent for relatively inexperienced pilots to maintain critical flight skills. The same may be true for more experienced pilots who do not exercise critical flight skills for prolonged periods of time.

It is equally important to consider that the requirement for the flight review may be satisfied in any category of aircraft for which the pilot is rated. For example, an individual possessing pilot in command privileges in both airplanes and gliders may accomplish the flight review in either an airplane or a glider. The privilege to carry passengers is then extended to both airplanes and gliders as long as the 90-day takeoff and landing requirement is satisfied for each category. Consequently, it becomes possible for a pilot, rated in multiple categories of aircraft, to be in compliance with the flight review requirement, yet never participate in recurrent training in a specific category of aircraft.

The most important component of any accident prevention strategy is the pilot. Consequently, the need for every pilot to maintain a high degree of proficiency in critical flight skills is a crucial factor in the prevention of aviation accidents. One of the most effective ways to address the problem of proficiency in critical flight skills is participation in a personal recurrent training program. In fact, FAA Advisory Circular 61-98, Currency and Additional Qualification Requirements for Certificated Pilots, recommends that pilots should consider designing a currency program tailored to their individual operating environment and needs. The AC states: "The requirements specified in FAR 61.57 should be regarded as minimums which need to be adjusted for various factors, such as overall pilot experience, different operating environments, complexity of the facilities used, and variations in makes and models of aircraft within specific categories and classes." In short, it is important for pilots to consider the need for currency beyond that specified by the regulations.

The creation of a personal proficiency program has many advantages. Primarily, the flexibility available to accomplish structured recurrent training that not only satisfies the requirements of the regulations, but also allows the integration of individual training needs as well. The development of a personal proficiency program will require an accurate initial assessment of individual flying skills and aeronautical knowledge by a competent flight instructor. This evaluation can then be compared to a known standard such as the FAA Practical Test Standards. The assessment period may also be used to provide the training necessary for the pilot to regain the level of proficiency required for initial certification, Assistance in developing a personal proficiency program can be obtained from a variety of sources including pilot examiners, individual flight instructors, FAA Safety Program Managers, or FAA appointed Aviation Safety Counselors.

One of the most important aspects of participation in a personal proficiency program is the establishment of a recurrent training schedule. As previously noted, current regulatory requirements may not provide an adequate level of recurrent training for every pilot. Participation in one of the many programs specifically designed to promote proficiency in critical flying skills can be used to supplement the training required by regulations. One such program, the FAA Pilot Proficiency Award Program, or WINGS, encourages participation in recurrent training on an annual basis. Not only does successful completion of each phase of the program satisfy the requirements for the flight review, but participants receive a distinctive set of wings and a certificate of accomplishment as well. Other opportunities for structured recurrent training include the instruction required to qualify for a higher level of a pilot certificate, or to add additional privileges to an existing certificate. Regardless of the type of program selected, the most important point to remember is that training is the foundation of proficiency. Unless each pilot continues to participate in a regular recurrent training program, critical flying skills erode very quickly.

In closing, remember that current and proficient are adjectives used to describe separate and distinct levels of competency. In the context of aviation, being current simply means that a pilot has complied with the regulations and is legal to exercise the privileges of his or her pilot certificate. Proficiency, on the other hand, describes a pilot who conducts each flight with the competence of a professional or with expert correctness. Proficiency also means making the commitment to put safety above all other considerations every time we fly. Proficiency goes well beyond the definition of being legal to fly. It's about being safe to fly.


Mr. Singleton, an airline pilot, is an active Aviation Safety Counselor in the Flight Standards District Office, Birmingham, AL. He is also a Trustee of the Soaring Society of America.