Study of airline pilots highlights the danger of relying on predictable scenarios for training

A person who can perform a task in a predictable situation won’t necessarily be able to perform that same task when surprised, according to new research published in The International Journal of Aerospace Psychology.

The study suggests that flight training should include elements of surprise.

“My background is in Human Movement Sciences (human kinetics, sports, neurology, etc.) The human ability to learn how to skilfully interact with the world has always fascinated me. The world is endlessly complex, yet somehow we can take it on,” said study author Annemarie Landman, a PhD student at Delft University of Technology.

“I love this process, not only as a subject of research but also as personal experience, e.g. in sports or games. The subject of performing under surprise or stress is interesting to me because these challenging conditions reveal how the brain works. Besides that, I respect it when people are driven to get the best out of themselves under challenging conditions, and I’d like to help them do that.”

The researchers used a motion-base flight simulator to test 20 airline pilots on their ability to recover from a stall in two situations.

The pilots first performed recoveries from eight different upsets in a set order. Then they performed recovery procedures for four stalls. After this, the pilots were instructed that their aircraft would stall three minutes after they passed a particular landmark. They were required to perform proper stall recovery procedures.

In one situation, the stall occurred in accordance with the instructions.

But for other pilots, the stall occurred about 5 seconds before the landmark was even reached. The pilots in this situation were also distracted prior to the stall by the researchers asking them to provide a rating on a sickness scale.

The researchers found that the surprise stall negatively affected the pilots’ adherence to the stall-recovery procedures.

“The goal of the study was to show that being skillful when you are not surprised and being skillful when you are surprised are two very different things,” Landman told PsyPost.

“A surprise requires different mental processes and actions: it requires you to make sense of what is happening and react to the events. If you never practice this because you always train with predictable and scripted scenarios, then your trained skills may not hold up in an emergency situation. Those skills are said to be ‘brittle’ instead of resilient.”

As one pilot told the researchers, he had a different “mental image” of the upcoming task and had to quickly change his frame of mind after the surprise stall.

The study, like all research, has some limitations.

“The study merely showed that it’s dangerous to ignore the challenges posed by surprising situations,” Landman explained. “However, how to train pilots for these situations is still not very clear. Is it, for instance, necessary to surprise pilots during simulator training, or to train under stress? If so, to what extent?”

“Shortly, I will publish a study in which I compare simulator training that is very one-sided and predictable, with training that is more variable and unpredictable,” she added. “The idea is that in unpredictable and variable training, you are forced to make sense of what is happening, and you build better mental models. The results of this study are very promising. They suggest that including variability and unpredictability in simulator training is very helpful in teaching pilots how to deal with surprises.”

The study, “The Influence of Surprise on Upset Recovery Performance in Airline Pilots“, was authored by Annemarie Landman, Eric L. Groen, M. M. (René) van Paassen, Adelbert W. Bronkhorst and Max Mulder.