A mnemonic-like procedure could help pilots overcome startle and surprise, according to new research published in The International Journal of Aerospace Psychology. The study suggests that such a procedure can improve decision-making in the wake of an unexpected event.
“It is becoming more and more clear that the ‘startle effect’ can be a huge problem for pilots when they respond to an emergency. Modern pilot training is focusing therefore on how to psychologically deal with startle,” explained study author Annemarie Landman (@hm_landman), researcher at TNO in The Netherlands and the Delft University of Technology.
“One way to do this is by using a decision-making aid or procedure, which pilots can memorize by means of a mnemonic. This can help pilots to realize which steps to take when they feel ‘paralyzed’ by startle. Several of such decision-making procedures are already being used by airline companies, but we found that none of these involved a step to specifically deal with startle and its disorienting effects.”
The researchers developed their own startle management procedure and tested its effectiveness using a group of 24 airline pilots.
“The procedure we tested was based on the ‘COOL’ mnemonic: Calm down – take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and become aware of your control inputs, Observe – scan the important flight parameters without focusing on the problem yet, Outline – now focus on the problem: what doesn’t make sense, or what do you think is going on?, Lead – make a plan and take action.”
The pilots first practiced takeoffs, landings, and other maneuvers in a full-motion flight simulator to familiarize themselves with the model of aircraft used for the study. (A Piper PA-34 Seneca III.) They then received a 10-minute briefing about the startle effect, and half of them (the experimental group) also received instructions and practice regarding the COOL procedure.
After the briefing, the pilots returned to the simulator to complete more training sessions. Some of these sessions included startling events, such as bird strike that resulted in a false stall warning or a sudden shift in the aircraft’s center of gravity. In the video below, a pilot in the study responds to an unexpected flap malfunction prior to landing.
About 89% of pilots in the the experimental group reported using the COOL procedure during startling scenarios, and most found it helpful. “We found that pilots generally liked the procedure, especially the Calm down and Observe steps. But more importantly, we found that they made better decisions when using it,” Landman told PsyPost.
For example, those who used the COOL procedure after experiencing a flap malfunction were less likely to inappropriately set the flaps even lower as they prepared to land.
However, pilots who used the COOL procedure had worse flight performance on average compared to those who did not. The “immediate responses were significantly less optimal” in the experimental group, the researchers said. Some pilots jumped to the Observe step of the procedure before recovering full control of the aircraft.
“The experiment also showed that the ‘COOL’ procedure can be improved in certain ways. For instance, high stress and/or eagerness resulted in some pilots executing the procedure too quickly after a problem occurred. They were focusing too much on executing the procedure steps instead of dealing with more pressing issues at hand. Such misdirected prioritizing under stress is a known problem that happens sometimes in real emergencies as well,” Landman explained.
“We also found that the procedure, although it seems very simple, was experienced by some pilots as too complex and distracting. When stressed, we naturally avoid those things that are complex and unfamiliar. So, a procedure like this should really be as simple as possible and it should be trained until it is a natural response.”
The study, “The Effectiveness of a Mnemonic-Type Startle and Surprise Management Procedure for Pilots“, was authored by Annemarie Landman, Sophie H. van Middelaar, Eric L. Groen, M. M. (René) van Paassen, Adelbert W. Bronkhorst, and Max Mulder.