Since the Air Commerce Act of 1926 established standards, aviation safety and performance has been improving across the industry. Those early aircraft were very different from the ones we fly today. As technology was developed, the same historical philosophy and procedural concepts were applied to very different aircraft, and a more complex and challenging air traffic system. Eventually, it was recognized that changes needed to be made. Improved automation and complexity required new and different skills. However, the way we organize information and how we teach it remains, in a large part, the same.
With offerings like the American Airlines video “Children of the Magenta” we began to see unintended consequences of automation dependency. With two-man crews and more complex systems, task saturation, loss of situational awareness, reduced technical knowledge and deterioration of flying skills have often become problematic. (Air France 447, Asiana Airlines 214, etc.) We seem to be facing greater challenges, not fewer, therefore we are seeking solutions. But, are we looking in the right place?
If we accept that the systems we interact with are relatively stable, then it is in the human interaction with those systems that we must seek change. There are two areas to assess in a generational interplay, that may reveal hidden challenges. These challenges are revealed by looking at the design and function of the brain in an operational way.
In “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” Daniel J. Levitin, PHD, says, “The human brain has evolved to hide from us those things we are not paying attention to. In other words, we often have a cognitive blind spot: We don’t know what we’re missing because our brain can completely ignore things that are not its priority at the moment—even if they are right in front of our eyes.”
When we are distracted, things we have trained and memorized to perform are missed, not because we are not doing our job, but, precisely because we are!
Levitin goes on to say, “Memory processes can easily become distracted or confounded…” and “The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” This is a critical concept appropriate to our discussion. How is this involved? We memorize limitations, systems, procedures, policies and a myriad of other requirements. Much of that is needed in the functional memory, the question is “where can we shift some of that burden to free up brain capacity for increased SA and reduced exposure to error?”
New strides in Neuroscience have helped us understand how to maximize brain effectiveness and things that degrade our abilities. Situational Awareness requires gathering and associating massive amounts of information. Daniel Goleman, PHD, writes in “Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence”, “Our mind holds endless ideas, memories, and potential associations waiting to be made. But the likelihood of the right idea connection with the right memory within the right context—and all that coming into the spotlight of attention—diminishes drastically when we are either hyper focused or too gripped by an overload of distractions to notice the insight.”
The generational interplay identified earlier, now becomes important. There are multitudes of articles that discuss the lack of memorization required of our young people. Many educators celebrate free thinking, however many lament the lack of mental discipline and foundational availability of knowledge. Regardless of the outcome of the debate we must adapt to the reality of the minds and skills that will occupy our cockpits.
Perhaps we need to take a truly revolutionary view of the task at hand and rethink the very nature of piloting traditions? We have been a “checklist” industry since there were airplanes. Instructors constantly correct crews when they see a lack of memorized flows, they say, “that is a checklist, not a do-list”. Can we hold the “millennial” accountable for information taught using “old generation” theory, when we now have evidence showing that “new generation” theory does not process information that way?
Remember Levitin’s “blind spot”? Information processing priority, will dictate whether we see what is in front of our eyes or not. He also showed that by shifting memory requirements externally, we can free the brain for better information gathering and processing, thus reducing the risk of error. Current training requirements are based on old school cultural learning. New crews struggling with memorization based behaviors without the cultural foundation to support it, are at risk.
What if checklists became do-lists. Why do we place so much importance in accomplishing flows from memory when we could take our time and never miss an item by just following a “do-list”? Do we create unnecessary time compression and task saturation during normal operations? When faced with an abnormal and use the QRH, we insist on taking time, if safe to do so, and hold or delay arrival etc. while we follow (do) the checklist. These solid HF techniques help us gain and regain SA. So why, under normal operations, do we rely on habituated responses where our brain can lie to us?
Considering the change in learning patterns and skills of the upcoming generations, shouldn’t we be responsive and adapt? Shouldn’t we find ways to take advantage of their strengths, and recognize that the teaching skills and learning tools of the previous generations may not work so well to maintain safety in this new age? Moreover, are we attempting to solve a present and future challenge with outdated generational thinking that will miss the mark with the new age of pilots? Can we break from traditional thinking, create a new responsive operational and training environment, and bring on the future generation?