Vacations are great. They give you a chance to put the stresses of work and daily chores aside for awhile and decompress. Occupying your mind with something other than flying can sometimes be a good thing, but once you get back in the cockpit, you may find that the rust sets in rather quickly. Picture this: you walk back into the hangar after a nice vacation, greet your evening partner as you relieve the day crew, and then almost immediately receive a call to medevac a car crash victim.
As you strap in, you notice it takes you an extra second or two to orient yourself on the start-up instruments, but you successfully avoid the hot start. You land at the scene uneventfully, yet you rushed the approach and did not recite your landing checklist in your head prior. You never even considered what you’d do if you lost an engine (or THE engine, for that matter).
Heading off to the hospital in the darkness, it takes noticeably longer for the sight picture of the helipad lighting to look familiar to you as you start your approach. Damn—you’re so tasked with flying a good approach, that you forgot your landing checklist again. You return to base and land, much to the appreciation of your burning calf muscles; it feels like you were trying to bend the tail rotor pedals during your platform landing. All these issues may have been transparent to the rest of the crew and passengers, yet you know your performance was below your best.
A quick check of your logbook shows that you are definitely within the currency requirements of FAR parts 61.56 and 61.57, which, in a nutshell, require you to have a flight review every 24 months, as well as to have accomplished three takeoffs and landings in the preceding 90 days. But while your currency advocates your legality or your minimum compliance with established rules, it is your proficiency, or by definition, your “ability to perform a given skill with expert correctness” that is in need of attention.
Flying is a perishable skill. The issues described above should be clear flags that your skills are less than peaked, and you are cutting into your margin of safety. When you are out of practice, considerably more than your normal amount of pilot attention goes towards performing critical flight skills such as takeoff and landing, and the amount of brainpower left for judgment and decision-making is decreased. If you are not able to multitask other processes such as reciting checklists or running the “what if” scenario in your head at crucial points in your flight, then your task saturation boundary may be closer than you realize, and in the event of a real emergency, your ability to think and act quickly might disappoint you.
Of course on a normal basis, certain flying skills will be used more than others. FAR parts 61.56 and 61.57 were created in an attempt to help retain the most basic of those skills at a bare minimum. But the unpredictable nature of law enforcement missions means that any of your more specialized skills can be called upon at any time. It is imperative that agencies dedicate ample and frequent flight time to continued training and proficiency. Flying enough actual missions does not preclude the need for actual training. There is no question that flying mission after mission certainly helps to retain skills, since tasks most often repeated are best remembered. But speaking for myself, I’d say I’ve acquired retainable experiences more so than retainable skills during actual missions, especially in the scenarios where I’ve scared myself … not my favorite way to train, by the way. Proficiency is best brought back by dedicated training flights, where the pilot’s mind is in a mode to receive, and instructor’s mind is in the mode to teach and critique.
If your agency is going to pride itself on being able to respond to a wide variety of specialized missions such as tactical insertion, hoist and medevac, my feeling is this: If you don’t frequently train for it, don’t advertise that you do it. Agencies that are involved in a recurrent training program of their own, with an established way of critiquing and documenting proficiency, stand the best chance of maintaining the safest of operations, while being readily capable of conducting their specialized missions, and easily satisfying any FAA requirements for currency in the process.
Ideally, upon returning from vacation, after greeting our coworkers, we should all make it a point to greet our other partner—our aircraft! Open the pilot’s manual, do some “arm-chair” flying and review emergency procedures, and request a proficiency flight to sharpen your skills before those in need ask you to use them.