Professional Distancing and Flying Healthy with Others (including instructors)
By Jason Blair, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, AGI
We have gotten used to the term "Social Distancing" and what it means to interact with other people. That doesn't seem all that possible when we are sharing a cockpit or cabin of an aircraft with a passenger, fellow pilot, or even an instructor. So, does that mean we have to fly by ourselves indefinitely? Many of us like to take others with us and may even need some instruction to stay current, proficient, or pursue advanced training
So, what should we do?
Well, like most things in aviation, it is probably going to be a mix of risk mitigation and acceptance.
I have been operating with a slightly different concept, one we are calling “professional distancing.”
Professional distancing is what I consider to be the minimum stance to keep operating while taking appropriate mitigation efforts, but not stopping an activity, such as flying with a friend, giving instruction. Or in my case, providing FAA practical testing, just because it can’t be done with more than 6’ of separation between parties.
Flying can’t ever be without some risk, but we mitigate many of the worst of these risks in how we fly, when we choose to fly, and how we conduct ourselves as pilots.
Flying healthily with others in an aircraft is a similar process when considering mitigating risks associated with flying in the new COVID-19 present world. Frankly, we probably should have been more aware of the health risks of sharing a small cockpit before the pandemic. But the attention that COVID-19 is forcing us to put on these concerns may well serve us for many potential illnesses in the future, from the common cold on up.
For me, the first significant considerations about flying when avoiding the spread of sickness while flying include “screening and cleaning.”
Screening: Who We Fly With – How Do You Choose?
Screening is a matter of choosing with whom I am going to share a cockpit. And cleaning is making sure that the cockpit is reasonably clean for anyone climbing into the aircraft. Many of us have flown an aircraft when we felt, well, "a little under the weather." Hopefully, we are awakening to the fact that a decision like that may affect us. Still, if we have something contagious, whether it’s COVID-19 or any other virus, it may affect others. We need to screen ourselves and probably have a discussion with instructors or passengers with whom we fly to honestly evaluate if any of us is afflicted by something that could be passed along to others.
If the answer is yes, then rescheduling the flight should be strongly considered. The FAA IMSAFE checklist is something that most of us have had beat into us when considering our health:
- Illness: Do I have any symptoms?
- Medication: Have I been taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs?
- Stress: Am I under psychological pressure from the job? Am I worried about financial matters, health problems, or family discord?
- Alcohol: Have I been drinking within 8 hours?
- Fatigue: Am I tired and not adequately rested?
- Emotion: Am I emotionally upset?
Now it’s time to apply that regimen to others as well. Both for things we might spread or “stuff” they might spread to us. Don't be bashful; just have an honest answer ready and screen the potential occupants before a flight. This can be done most effectively before even meeting in person over the phone, if possible.
Cleaning: Best Practices for Cleaning the Aircraft
Most owners don't do a great job of cleaning their aircraft, either. Maybe a quick vacuuming during the annual or if someone spills something. As pilots, many times in older aircraft, the best cleaning many aircraft have gotten is when a window or door was open during taxi, and some wind blew through. Seriously.
Start cleaning more thoroughly. Do it with disinfectant and antibacterial cleaning supplies.
If you are the only person flying the aircraft, you may choose to do this less frequently. But if the aircraft is shared between multiple users, cleaning between every set of users might be advisable.
At a minimum, and some of the best advice I have seen implemented, and now pass along is to take some wipes and do a "chair fly" of the aircraft. Wipe everything you might touch in your normal flight operations. This gets the primary part of commonly-touched areas cleaner and reduces some of the potential surfaces that could spread contamination.
A third part of the risk matrix might be a broader mitigation strategy for additional risks.
Reasonable Mitigation Strategies
Discretion becomes a factor here. Sure, you could choose to fly in a bubble suit, but practicality probably makes this prohibitive. This is where you, as a pilot, are going to have to make some decisions.
If your fellow pilot, passenger, or instructor is healthy and has been so for some time and hasn’t been in places likely to encounter any sickness, you might be more comfortable with normal cockpit interactions. The same might be true of flying with a member of your household. A pilot and instructor who are meeting for the first time might choose to wear masks or even wear gloves when flying. Now, I am not going to get into a debate here about the efficacy of either, there are differing opinions, but if you feel it will help, do it. You may choose to limit flight operations with individuals who are in high-risk medical conditions. Or you may choose to only fly with a select mix of people to minimize your social group and potential risk vectors.
The point is to decide and do so reasonably, to determine what risk you are comfortable with based on a critical evaluation of the potential risks associated with different types of operation.
No effort will make your health considerations 100% risk-free when flying with other people, or even by yourself. At some point, you are going to have to evaluate what risks you are comfortable taking. Sure, it makes sense to mitigate as many as reasonable, but no one will never be able to tell you EVERY risk can be eliminated. Do the best you can, think critically about what risks you can eliminate, and fly as safely as possible. Hopefully, the concept of professional distancing will help you find a middle ground between social distancing, causing you not to fly vs. blind acceptance of all risks.
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Jason Blair is an active single- and multi-engine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 5,000 hours total time and over 3,000 hours instruction given and has flown over 100 different makes and models of general aviation aircraft. In his role as Examiner, over 1,500 pilot certificates have been issued. He has and continues to work for and with multiple aviation associations that promote training and general aviation. He also consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for the general aviation industry. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications, a full listing of which can be found at www.jasonblair.net.
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