Skill Fade is defined as the decay of ability or adeptness over a period of non-use.
The adage "use it, or lose it" can accurately be applied to most acquired skills, be they physical, mechanical or cognitive. However, much will depend upon the type of skill involved and scope of the individual’s expertise or competence. For example, even if you haven't ridden a bicycle for a protracted period of time, it is probable that you would still be able to get on one (and not fall off) with relative ease. This sort of skill is hard to forget or lose. Conversely, it is much easier to forget how to complete more complicated or less predictable tasks or activities. Manually flying an instrument approach to minimums in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) under circumstances of adverse wind and turbulence is a difficult skill to master. Unless that skill is exercised regularly, the process will become less familiar and more difficult as time passes and, eventually, the ability may be lost completely.
A skill, or skill knowledge is knowledge reflected in motor or manual skills and in cognitive or mental skills, that manifests itself in the doing of something. In that sense, skill knowledge differs from declarative knowledge because the practitioner is often not consciously aware of, or able to articulate, the skill. Skill knowledge is acquired slowly through related experience and practice. Acquisition, or the process of learning a skill has three characteristic stages:
- Cognitive Stage - Cognitive learning has a basis in factual knowledge. The learner is first introduced to a basic skill and then memorizes the steps required to perform that skill. At this stage, as the learner carries out these memorized steps, they are often unaware of progress, or may fixate on a single aspect of their performance. Performing the skill at this stage typically requires all the learner’s attention. Any distraction could cause performance to deteriorate or cease completely.
- Associative Stage - Practice is necessary in order to learn how to coordinate muscle movement with visual and tactile senses. As the practice continues, the learner begins to associate each step in the sequence with likely outcomes. The learner no longer simply performs a series of memorized steps, but is able to assess their progress along the way and make adjustments in the performance. Performing the skill still requires deliberate attention, but the learner is better able to deal with distractions.
- Automatic Response Stage - Automaticity is one of the by-products of practice. As procedures become automatic, less attention is required to carry them out. It is, therefore, possible to do other things simultaneously. At this stage, performance of the skill is rapid and smooth and requires much less deliberate attention. The practitioner may no longer be able to remember the individual steps in the procedure, or explain how to perform the skill. It has simply become "automatic".
Factors Affecting Skill Fade
There are a number of factors that affect skill fade. These include:
- Retention interval - The ability to remember information is proportional to its frequency of use. In essence, the longer the period of non-use, the greater the probability of decay.
- Overlearning - Overlearning refers to the amount of extra training beyond the point needed to reach competency. Overlearning has the potential to induce complacency and increase the association between stimulus and response.
- Training methodology - The type of training and testing methodology will affect knowledge retention. For some skills, "hands-on" training might lead to optimum retention whereas lectures and classroom teaching are more suitable for others. How (and when) individuals are tested on their new knowledge is also important. For some skills, practical or "show me" type testing will be much more effective than written ("tell me") examinations. Additionally, the majority of retention testing takes place after teaching has been concluded. Depending upon the duration of the training period, this methodology could result in retention interval becoming an issue.
- Task type - The degree of skill fade associated with a given type of task will vary from individual to individual. Some people are more capable of performing tasks that require physical strength, coordination or dexterity, while others excel at problem solving or decision-making.
- Conditions of retrieval - Skill retention is partially dependent upon the conditions and environment of training. If these are significantly different from the workplace situation, skill retention will suffer. However, if the setting for learning and testing mirrors the workplace, skill retention will be enhanced.
- Individual ability - High ability individuals, in general, will show less skill fade than their less able peers.
Pilot Skill Fade
Aviators are not exempt from the spectre of skill fade. Whilst NAAs dictate currency and recency requirements, these can vary widely from regulator to regulator, by type of employment and by the classification of the pilot license held. An airline pilot might be subject to semi annual training and testing whereas a business aviation pilot holding the same category of license might only require training on an annual basis and a proficiency check every second year. The general aviation pilot flying a personal aircraft might only require a self directed biannual review to be compliant with the regulations. It is also important to realise that, whilst a pilot might meet both currency and recency requirements, this does not necessarily ensure proficiency in all areas. Critical skills and knowledge can fade between mandatory training and testing sessions due to inactivity, lack of individual effort or simply through lack of exposure to certain events or areas of operation. Proficiency can also fade due to over-reliance on automation, aging, inactivity due to recovery from an illness or injury, infrequent opportunities to fly due to type of employment or role within the organisation, or due to a overall reduction in flying hours. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on pilot skill fade due to fleet and flying hour reductions, furloughs and redundancies. Although enacted to help reduce COVID-19 spread, the NAA extension of currency expiry dates and suspension of recency requirements, authorised in some jurisdictions, have potentially exacerbated this impact.
Acquiring and maintaining a skill takes effort. Even in circumstances of normal day to day operations, pilots must be actively engaged to maintain their skills and knowledge at an optimal level. Staying abreast of regulatory and procedural changes, honing manual flying skills, reviewing aircraft limitations, and rehearsing memory item sequences should be a part of every pilot's skill retention strategy. When removed from the cockpit due to illness, furlough or redundancy, skill maintenance becomes significantly more difficult.
Research has indicated that individuals with long held skills and knowledge were better able to retain their skills during periods of disuse when they:
- kept in touch with their peers
- stayed aware of developments in their profession
- had a high level of learning and proficiency at the start of the furlough period
Although it is reasonable to expect that professional pilots, when recalled from furlough or starting a new job, will be provided with the appropriate "high tech" simulator and on-line training tools to reestablish their skills and qualifications, private pilots are not likely to have the same access to technology or professional instruction when they resume flying. Both groups are unlikely to have any access to formalised training whilst suspended from flying. However, low tech solutions such as regular study of the AFM to review aircraft systems and procedures, utilising flash cards to reinforce limitations and memory items, and use of a "paper trainer", consisting of wall mounted cockpit panel diagrams and the corresponding aircraft checklists, to practicing flows, checklist responses and cockpit procedures, can all contribute to significantly reducing the rate of skill fade during a hiatus from flying.