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Pilot judgment and expertise (OGHFA BN)

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Article Information
Category: Human Factors Human Factors
Content source: Flight Safety Foundation Flight Safety Foundation
Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL
Operator's Guide to Human Factors in Aviation
Human Personal Qualities
Pilot judgment and expertise


Briefing Note


1 Background

This briefing note discusses two closely related topics: pilot judgment and pilot expertise. It begins with definitions of key terms. It then describes specific perceptual-motor and cognitive skills that can be learned and used to improve pilot judgment and thereby enhance pilot expertise.


2 Definitions

There are both general dictionary definitions of judgment and expertise and more specific definitions provided by researchers and regulatory authorities. The dictionary definitions may be thought of as one-dimensional because they apply to any usage of the terms. When the notion of aviation is added to the one-dimensional definitions, more specific terms such as pilot judgment and aeronautical decision making emerge. These may be thought of as multi-dimensional or domain-specific definitions.


2.1 Judgment

Defining judgment is not a simple task. Difficulty arises when trying to distinguish among judgment, decision making, pilot judgment and aeronautical decision making. The terms are often used interchangeably. However, Hunter (2003) differentiates among them by introducing the concept of dimensionality as follows:

One-dimensional definitions:

Judgment (dictionary) — the power to arrive at a wise decision or conclusion on the basis of indications and probabilities when the facts are not clearly ascertained.

Decision making (dictionary) — the act of determining in one’s own mind the most suitable opinion or course of action.

Multi-dimensional definitions:

Pilot judgment (Jensen 1995) — the mental process we use in making decisions:

  • Rational judgment — the ability to discover and establish the relevance of all available information relating to problems of flight, to diagnose these problems, to specify alternative courses of action and to assess the risk associated with each alternative.
  • Motivational judgment — the motivation to choose and execute a suitable course of action within the available time frame. The choice could be either action or no action, and “suitable” is a choice consistent with societal norms.

Aeronautical decision making (U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, 1991) — a systematic approach to the mental process used by aircraft pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances.

Jensen (1995) defines pilot judgment in terms of a pilot’s skill repertoire, knowledge and motivation to choose a “suitable” course of action. Similarly, the FAA’s definition of aeronautical decision making includes both process and outcome components. Hunter (2003) argues that pilot judgment and aeronautical decision making can be used interchangeably to represent the multi-dimensional nature of these concepts in the aviation world while the one-dimensional definitions of judgment and decision making, while applicable, do not express the complexity of the concepts in an aeronautical environment.

This briefing note adopts the multi-dimensional definition of pilot judgment. Under this definition, a pilot’s expertise (skills and knowledge) can influence his or her judgments. This is consistent with general research, which supports the idea that experts make better judgments. Later, this BN discusses how training pilots to make good judgments is important in enhancing expertise.

Good pilot judgment requires the ability and motivation to:
  • Discover and establish the relevance of all available information relating to problems of flight
  • Diagnose problems
  • Specify alternative courses of action
  • Assess the risk associated with each alternative
  • Choose and execute a suitable course of action within the available time (Jensen, 1995)


2.2 Expertise

Expertise is “special skill or knowledge,” and an expert is “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field.” Traditionally, the number of flight hours and years of flying experience have been considered to be sufficient indicators of a pilot’s level of expertise. It is now known that flying experience alone may not be enough to define an individual as an expert pilot. Research has shown that in order to become an expert in virtually any domain, an individual must engage in extensive and deliberate practice (about four hours per day) over an extended period of time (usually 10 years or more) on a specific task or a skill set. Evidence suggests that a general predisposition to engage in deliberate practice appears to be the most distinguishing characteristic of “experts.”

Pilots’ Definition of an “Expert Pilot”

Pilots defined an expert pilot as one who is highly motivated, confident (but not overconfident), has superior learning and performance skills, applies those skills in a changing environment and possesses a type of judgment described by many as “natural.” To many pilots, the expert pilot becomes one with the machine and flows within the “flying space.”

Pilots stated that the expert pilot has the following specific characteristics:

1) Possesses self-confidence in his or her skills
2) Is highly motivated to learn all there is to know about the flight domain and constantly practices the relevant flying tasks
3) Has superior ability to focus on the primary task and change focus as necessary
4) Has excellent situational awareness (flight environment, location of other aircraft, terrain, navigation, communications, weather, etc.)
5) Is highly cognizant of the aircraft’s condition including noise, vibration and engine indications
6) Is always vigilant for the unusual, abnormal or emergency, and mentally makes contingency plans
7) Has superior mental capacity for problem diagnosis, risk assessment and problem resolution
8) Has excellent communication skills and applies them to each audience and situation
9) Knows his or her own limitations and is motivated to keep a safe margin above that limit
10) Has the discipline and strength of ego to acknowledge his or her limitations in every situation and seek help from crewmembers to offset the limitations

Adaptive expertise is the ability to apply one’s expertise (knowledge and skills) to a novel situation (implies the use of cognitive flexibility as discussed below). In order to develop adaptive expertise, pilots must learn to understand the underlying principles of a task at a deeper level. This, in turn, requires training that will enable pilots to recognize situations that have changed or occur out of an expected context. It also necessitates including problem-solving techniques as part of the training in order to cope effectively with unexpected events. Adaptive expertise enables pilots to:

  • Deal with ambiguity and to understand how their current beliefs and assumptions may affect their perceptions of a situation, particularly one they have never experienced.
  • Use their current knowledge to modify existing strategies or to develop productive new strategies in novel situations.
  • Extrapolate their knowledge to solve problems in novel situations.
  • Know what to do as well as what not to do in a situation.
  • Monitor their current level of understanding of a situation, continue to learn and strive to achieve a higher level of functioning. Adaptive experts use each new situation as an opportunity to acquire additional expertise.
  • Find ways to use what is known to define a solution to a problem. For example, instead of opening up the schematic to find an answer to a question, practice using logic and your knowledge of other systems you have studied to answer the question, and then check your answer.


3 Improving Judgment and Expertise by Improving Skills

Experts will make better judgments than novices as long as the subject matter is within their domain or specific area of expertise. Achieving expertise in aviation does not happen overnight, and pilots must understand that it will only come with deliberate practice of both perceptual-motor and cognitive skills.


3.1 Perceptual-motor skills

A perceptual-motor skill is any ability or capacity involving the interaction of perception and voluntary movement. Perceptual-motor skills involve sensing, thinking and then acting. Flying is a perceptual-motor skill because it requires pilots to receive, perceive and process a wide range of information and to respond with physical movements in order to fly the aircraft. To achieve expertise in perceptual-motor skills, a pilot must:

  • Practice flying at every opportunity.
  • Practice a variety of flying scenarios (e.g., nonprecision approaches, hand-flying).
  • Create meaningful situations that will expand the pilot’s experience base (e.g., fly new routes, learn a new aircraft, obtain an additional rating).
  • Practice often and practice consistently.
  • “Chair-fly” problematic flight segments by mentally walking through the sequence of requisite tasks. For example, take an abnormal checklist and mentally simulate the situation. Don’t just go through the boldface immediate actions and memory items; visualize the cockpit, the switches and the appropriate sequence of tasks that must be performed. Play the mental simulation all the way through to the end. See how many questions are generated. Identify factors that you had not thought about previously.

As noted above, practice is a central theme in improving perceptual-motor skills. After time, many of these skills will become automatic, and a pilot will not have to think about what movement is needed to perform a task. However, when a pilot changes to a different aircraft, many of the learned perceptual-motor skills may not be applicable and will have to be relearned for the new aircraft.


3.2 Cognitive skills

Cognitive skills are those that involve mental processes such as comprehension, judgment, memory and reasoning. The training and deliberate practice techniques for perceptual-motor skills can also enhance cognitive skills. However, cognitive skills are often more complex than perceptual-motor skills. Because cognitive skills are complex, a number of concepts have been explored related to the limitations of human cognition. Understanding and using these concepts will aid a pilot in making better judgments and increasing his or her expertise.

Recall involves the ability to consciously retrieve information. A variety of techniques are available that help a person remember information. They are especially important in aviation because of the large amounts of information that a pilot is required to know to effectively operate a sophisticated aircraft.

Mnemonic devices are often used as recall or memory aids. Mnemonics can be verbal, something such as a very short poem or a special word used to help a person remember something, particularly lists. For lists, usually the first letters of words or phrases are used to create a meaningful word that serves as a reminder of larger lists of words or phrases. A common example from general aviation is FLARE to help recall the key after-takeoff steps:

  • F = flaps set (if extended during takeoff)
  • L = lights as required
  • A = auxiliary fuel pump off (if on for departure)
  • R = radar transponder on
  • E = engine (lean mixture when at altitude)

Mnemonics should not replace the use of checklists, but they are often very helpful. Pilots should use standard mnemonics whenever available, but pilots should also try creating their own as they may have more meaning to the individual and will likely be remembered more easily.

Schema is a mental structure that represents some aspect of the world. A schema helps individuals to organize information and to expect future events based on previous experiences of sequenced events. A schema helps to make certain tasks more automatic and lessens cognitive load. Generally speaking, a schema is formed without effort, but it is important for an individual to understand that he or she indeed is using a schema and that it may not necessarily apply to every situation. A novice pilot will have very poorly developed schema for flying since he has little experience performing tasks such as landing an aircraft. The novice will have to use much of his cognitive capacity to think about and perform a landing. On the other hand, an experienced “expert” pilot will have very well-developed schema. An expert pilot may have a general schema that is applied to any landing, but the expert may also have a different schema for landings at each individual airport. The expert will have to think very little about the processes of landing an aircraft. However, this can sometimes affect performance negatively by introducing biases such as confirmation bias. Here, the pilot has used a certain schema successfully many times, but on a particular occasion something is different (e.g., an unusual runway change). The pilot may use his normal schema and miss or misinterpret the “different” information because the unusual information or situation was not expected. If the pilot does not recognize differences between the actual world and his or her schema, problems can occur. For this reason, it is essential that even the most experienced pilots:

  • Monitor the environment for information that does not fit into their schema.
  • Recognize when the prior or regular schema is not sufficient.
  • Adjust their schema when necessary; the same schema will not work in all situations.
  • Practice as many abnormal situations as possible; the more they practice, the more developed their schema become and the more easily they can be applied if the abnormal situations ever occur.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to quickly and accurately restructure one’s current thoughts and actions to respond adaptively to dynamic and ill-defined situations. An expert is often able to recognize the need to change, whereas the novice may continue with an approach that is inappropriate. At other times, experts lose cognitive flexibility when they try to apply a schema or approach that has worked many times in the past. To achieve cognitive flexibility, pilots must:

  • Maintain a mindset that is open to the possibility that the current situation may differ in important respects from those experienced previously.
  • Be alert to subtle cues that signal the emergence of a problem, an event that can cause a problem or entry into an unknown situation.
  • Have the ability to recognize that the course of action needs to be changed and have the ego-strength to make the change when they determine it will be beneficial.
  • Practice searching for alternative explanations and listening to other, perhaps conflicting, points of view.
  • Have the capability to respond to a novel event by adapting expertise and using logic and analysis in situations not covered by experience.


3.3 Metacognitive skills

Metacognition is the ability to monitor one's current level of understanding and to decide when it is and is not adequate for the task at hand. In other words, it is “thinking about thinking” or the awareness of one’s knowledge. Metacognition is a skill that can be used to control cognitive processes. It is useful to pilots because:

  • In order to develop adaptive expertise, pilots must understand how they think and how their current knowledge can be helpful or, at times, detrimental.
  • Metacognitive training teaches decision makers to use general rather than specific strategies to optimize their judgment and decision-making processes in both familiar and unfamiliar situations.
  • It helps one to maintain attentional control. Metacognition involves being aware of what one is thinking or the process by which one is making a decision.

In order to develop metacognitive skills, one should practice monitoring thoughts and actions by asking: “What am I focusing on now and what is the state of the situation (e.g., aircraft attitude, flight path, altitude, velocity)?” Think about thinking.


6 Key Points

  • Pilot judgment and aeronautical decision making are similar terms, and are multi-dimensional concepts that examine processes and outcomes.
  • Judgment and a pilot’s level of expertise are closely linked.
  • The qualities of an expert pilot do not necessarily arise just from the number of hours logged or the number of years of flying experience.
  • Pilots can improve judgment and expertise by practicing perceptual-motor and cognitive skills.
  • Perceptual-motor skills may need to be relearned when transitioning to a new aircraft.
  • Mnemonic devices can help pilots remember information, but they should not replace checklists.
  • Schema develop with experience, and it is important to recognize when a situation does not fit into your normal schema.
  • Cognitive flexibility and adaptive expertise are important in applying expertise and judgment in new or unusual situations.
  • Enhancing metacognitive skills by thinking about thinking can lead to better judgments and expertise.


5 Associated OGHFA Material

Briefing Notes:

Situational Examples:


6 Additional Reading Material



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