How do pilots prepare for complex flight safety events?

By Richard Clewley - April 24, 2018

What animal is pictured above? Top marks. It’s a shark.

How would you respond if you unexpectedly encountered such a specimen when out snorkelling? With alarm? Probably. Try and remember your calm exit procedure? Possibly. Recall the wiki advice for surviving shark attacks… that you looked up on the internet years ago? Probably not. After all, you weren’t really expecting to get attacked.

Sharks appear out of the blue. Literally. And so it is for flight safety events. Pilots must recognise the type of event before organising a response. Just like the shark encounter. Different events demand different responses and, just like our fishy friends, flight safety events come in many different shapes and sizes. They exhibit diversity.

The role of flight simulators

That’s where flight simulators come in. Pilots are trained to respond to a diverse range of events, most of which will never be experienced in the real world. But, with a bit of luck, these simulated encounters with the weird and the wonderful will be laid down as a memory trace. A bank of synthetic experiences from dark nights past; 3am on a desolate industrial estate, high on cheap coffee, pilots toil in hushed tones, responding to beeps, bells and warnings. These encounters are brief. Often, they are combined with numerous other unusual happenings – well, that is the point of a flight simulator, so you’d better get your money’s worth. Finally, you emerge from the simulator building with a strange sense of discombobulation. Blinking in the light, as if you’ve just left a matinee performance of a disturbing film.

And then it’s back to the routine flight safety events of everyday operations.

Friendly and hostile events

Many flight safety events are pilot-friendly. They are familiar manifestations of well-understood system anomalies or operational problems, such as a simple failure of an electrical generator that neatly matches the equally simple checklist. Typical and familiar events offer us humans a cognitive advantage. They are easier to verify and respond to. They are stronger concepts in our mind.

Unfortunately, events exhibit troubling diversity. In June 2009, an Air France Airbus A330 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The crew were unable to adequately recognise a loss of reliable airspeed data and an aerodynamic stall. This inability to recognise events often leads to delayed or inappropriate pilot response. The French investigation team examined thirteen other crews that had experienced similar events. Several crews explicitly diagnosed other malfunctions and none of the crews used the correct remedial procedure. For very experienced, highly trained professionals to have such difficulty indicates these events are hard to decode in real-time. It is a hostile cognitive environment.

Dynamic cues

How did those real flight safety events match the flight crews’ simulated encounters? We don’t really know. Cognitive psychology suggests that good overlap with strong concepts promotes recognition and response. Analysis of the Air France accident suggests there were 32 important system transitions in the first 1 minute and 42 seconds of the event. Did this event ever stabilise long enough for the crew to assimilate the cues? Perhaps the crew experienced it as 32 loosely connected events. Either way, this event exhibited some very demanding characteristics. Such an assembly of dynamic cues may even warrant the tag "complex".

Looking for the signatures of complex flight safety events

At the Cranfield Safety and Accident Investigation Centre, we are researching these complex flight safety events. We have developed a theory-driven framework to help understand the signatures of complex events. We are currently examining important variations in concept strength and how this can lead to undesirable pilot response. We are trying to understand the cognitive disadvantages that flight crew experience when non-typical and highly unfamiliar events emerge.

We acknowledge that it’s frustrating for flight safety managers when pilots fail to respond adequately to an apparently simple event. After all, response, or lack of, is the primary paradigm for understanding bad outcomes – listening to the news will confirm this.

We want to place renewed emphasis on recognition, and cognitive psychology tells us that recognition is constrained by narrow reference concepts. It is, perhaps, an optimistic assumption to think a brief simulated encounter with a crude example event will survive for years without decay. It is still more optimistic to consider it adequate for pilots to recognise a complex manifestation.

We aim to channel our findings into pilot education, to ensure that pilots are better positioned to recognise and respond to events which pose the most severe cognitive challenges – for example, unusual combinations of cues, rare and highly unfamiliar anomalies, and even recovery from familiar events that have been mismanaged. 

We’re not proposing more expensive time in simulators. We are about to trial a concept building tool that allows pilots to self-educate and expand their event knowledge without the scrutiny of being assessed. In the process pilots learn a wider range of manifestations and event recognition markers.

Which takes us all the way back to sharks. Is the specimen pictured above typical of a shark? It probably is to most people, as our reference concepts tend be tightly coupled to typical instances. The picture afforded you a cognitive advantage. But sharks actually exhibit an enormous amount of diversity - of the 500+ species, relatively few look like the "typical" shark.