Covid has meant months out of the cockpit. As countries begin to open up, mid-air mistakes are mounting.
By Angus Whitley and Anurag Kotoky
Back in the cockpit after time off recovering from Covid-19, an airline pilot forgot to start his plane’s second engine for takeoff, a mistake that could have ended in disaster if he hadn’t aborted the flight.
Another pilot, fresh from a seven-month layoff because of the pandemic and descending to land early in the morning, realized almost too late he hadn’t lowered the wheels and pulled out of the approach just 800 feet (240 meters) from the tarmac.
Weeks earlier, a passenger plane leaving a busy airport headed off in the wrong direction, flown by a captain who was back on deck for the first time in more than six months.
These potentially disastrous errors all took place in the U.S. in recent months as pilots returned to work. In every case, crew blamed their oversight on a shortage of flying during Covid, the most deadly pandemic since the 1918 influenza outbreak and certainly the only one to have wreaked such havoc on what was a burgeoning global aviation industry.
The incidents are among dozens of mistakes, confidentially declared by out-of-practice pilots since the start of the pandemic, that are stored on a low-profile database designed to identify emerging safety threats. The monitoring program, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, is decades old but is now flashing warning signs as planes return to the skies across the world.
Deep cuts by airlines left some 100,000 pilots globally working skeleton hours or on long-term leave, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Many haven’t flown for more than 18 months. But as rising vaccination rates allow travel to resume, concerns are growing that a lack of proficiency, confidence, or simply one moment of forgetfulness could lead to tragedy.