Pilot Skill Deterioration

Pilots usually assume that their skills improve as they accumulate hours and experience and get more comfortable in an airplane after earning a Private Pilot certificate.  But what if that is in fact only partially true, what if it is based largely or entirely on wishful thinking?  There is a now-obscure but rather disconcerting 1983 FAA/Embry-Riddle technical study of 42 pilots, which showed that for 27 tested private-pilot skills, all, all, of the tested skills deteriorated, some significantly, during the two years after the tested pilots earned their Private Pilot certificates.  The 1983 study (Childs et al., “Private Pilot Flight Skill Retention 8, 1 6, and 24 Months Following Certification”, posted in full on our website here: FAA ERAU 1983 pilot skill deterioration study (39 downloads) ) involved three groups of pilots (two groups took additional training of different types, while the third did not), and three stages of pilot-skill evaluation over the course of two years.  

The Conclusions from the study, which is posted on our website, indicate that the skills you are taught during pilot training deteriorate if you do not practice or, better yet, build on them.   To quote: “Recently certificated private pilots who do not fly regularly can be expected to undergo a relatively rapid and significant decrement in their flight skills.”  [“Decrement”??]  Unless pilots practice or continue training after they get their license, the skills that were mastered to satisfy the FAA Practical Test Standards for the test get rusty.  It follows that for many, maybe even most pilots, their skills are at an apex at the time of the Private-Pilot practical/flight test, and that they deteriorate unless the pilot continues training or at least continues to practice those skills. 

Well Duh; we lose what we do not use, and few enough of us regularly practice skills such as stalls, slow flight, crosswind landings, etc.  But we should practice them, because we will not be able to perform them with confidence and facility when we actually need them if we are relying on a dimming two-year-old memory.

If we do not practice, not only do the skills deteriorate, but our comfort zone also shrinks.  As it shrinks, we go up for practice in winds of increasingly less strength; we do not practice slow flight or steep turns for fear we may stall, since it’s been so long since we’ve practiced stall recovery and we were probably never comfortable with stalls anyway.  Sure, these specific skills may not be needed frequently, but it’s nice to have them in your arsenal when they are needed.  Facility and precision with such maneuvers inspire confidence that you are indeed master of your airplane.  If you practice, your skills may or may not improve, but at least they won’t deteriorate.  You mastered these skills once, are you still fluent?

But there is hope; the report suggests that the skill level attained for the flight test need not be a pinnacle, but rather can and should be a stage towards improvement, and, moreover, that if pilots want to improve, they need to continue to take training, for example training towards an IFR, commercial, or other rating.  During training, you are flying regularly, and someone is critiquing you, demanding progress.  During training there is a stated goal with specific standards to be met.  Every pilot should strive towards improvement, and training towards an advanced rating offers a structured environment for it.

You don’t like studying for FAA knowledge tests or taking FAA practical tests with an examiner?  There are alternatives for structured programs that do not involve tests, including the FAA Wings program.  Or if you’re the go-it-alone cowboy type, download the FAA’s Airman Certification Standards (https://www.faa.gov/training_testing/testing/acs/media/private_airplane_acs_change_1.pdf ). They are a gawd-awful and repetitious read, but once you filter out the bureaucratese you can glean the nuggets.  Look for the list of skills you once had mastered, and the required performance standards you once met.  Then go out to hone your skills back to the level you had.  If you are uncomfortable with any of them, drag along an instructor; it’s time and money well spent. And if you balk at instructor fees, believe me the CFI is not getting rich.

Averaged retention of 27 private-pilot skills as evaluated for three test groups of pilots at three stages during the two years after they took the practical test to earn their private-pilot certificate. From Childs et al., 1983 (see posting on our website). Group A received additional training before the 8-month check. Group B received training after the 8-month check. Group C received no additional training after earning the Private-Pilot certificate.
Chart showing those skills that degraded the most (top half) and least (bottom half) during the course of two years. From Childs et al., 1983 (see posting on our website)
Take-away from the Childs et al. 1983 report: skills improve after taking the private-pilot practical test if you take additional training (red line). Skills should not deteriorate if you continue to practice them to the performance standards of the practical test (blue line). If skills are not practiced, they deteriorate and the comfort window closes in on you (yellow line).

John Lorenz