Unpredictable simulator training can improve pilots’ responses to surprising situations in-flight

New aviation psychology research provides evidence that pilots’ responses to surprises can be improved through a particular type of simulator training. The findings suggest that predictable training scenarios are insufficient to prepare pilots for unexpected situations in-flight.

“Our latest study, recently published in Human Factors, shows promising effects of unpredictability and variability in simulator training. It seems that pilots trained in this manner build better mental models, which prevents confusion and improves performance in surprise situations,” explained Annemarie Landman of Delft University of Technology, the corresponding author of the study.

“The topic of surprise in flight crew is relevant right now, because aviation safety organisations have recommended that pilots are trained for surprise situations, starting in 2019.”

“In certain recent accidents, it seems that surprise severely disrupted the crews’ performance,” Landman said. “Perhaps these accidents could have been prevented if the pilots were better trained to deal with the aspect of surprise. However, it’s not yet clear what kind of training would be effective. So to get a better grip on this issue, we created a conceptual model of startle and surprise.”

Prior to their simulator study, Landman and her colleagues reviewed previous research on the topic to better conceptualize what was meant by a “surprise” in the context of aviation. The key to a surprise, they found, was to set up a situation that mismatched with a previously learned structure of events.

“Surprise is like a warning signal to indicate that there is a mismatch between your understanding of a situation, and the real situation. It pushes you to investigate and improve your understanding, so you know how to respond,” Landman explained to PsyPost.

“There are a couple of issues that make it difficult to solve a surprise. One problem is that you rely — in part — on your understanding of a situation in order to interpret, or ‘frame’, what is going on. Without this perspective, you may, for instance, stare at the instruments without them making any sense to you.”

“Another problem is that stress typically impairs your ability to get a good perspective on the situation,” Landman continued. “So if you’re highly surprised as well as stressed out by an emergency event, you can become ‘stuck’ in your thinking and get completely confused.”

“Add to this that airplanes are extremely reliable, so when an issue does happen, it is likely more surprising than it used to be. Airplanes are also highly automated, which can make it more difficult for pilots to suddenly take manual control when this is needed.”

In their simulator study, Landman and her colleagues trained 20 airline pilots to perform some maneuvers in an unfamiliar aircraft. The researchers found that pilots trained in a more unpredictable manner used throttle and airspeed more effectively in a surprise situation compared to pilots trained in a more predictable manner.

“The research points to several possible training approaches. On the one hand, pilot understanding of the aircraft and of emergency events can be improved through simulator practice. This experience can be useful to ‘switch’ quickly and effectively to a new understanding in a surprise situation,” Landman said.

“Also, the detrimental effects of stress and the loss of perspective in an emergency situation can perhaps be countered with stress regulation techniques, or techniques to analyse the situation in a step-wise and structured manner.”

The study, “Training Pilots for Unexpected Events: A Simulator Study on the Advantage of Unpredictable and Variable Scenarios“, was authored by Annemarie Landman, Peter van Oorschot, M. M. (René) van Paassen, Eric L. Groen, Adelbert W. Bronkhorst, and Max Mulder.

The review article, “Dealing With Unexpected Events on the Flight Deck: A Conceptual Model of Startle and Surprise“, was authored by Annemarie Landman, Eric L. Groen, M. M. (René) van Paassen, Adelbert W. Bronkhorst, and Max Mulder.