Up In the Air: Colloquium on Alternative Training Programs for Pilots

Regent University’s Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology welcomed Deborah A. Boehm-Davis, Ph.D., Chair of the Psychology Department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Dr. Boehm-Davis is past-president of Division 21 (Applied Experimental & Engineering Society) and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Her presentation was titled, “Can old dogs learn new tricks? Developing and evaluating alternative training for pilots.”

Dr. Boehm-Davis shared her framework for understanding aviation performance. This immediately caught my attention because I do not enjoy flying as much as you would think, particularly given how frequently I fly. But I am a big fan of aviation safety. I usually spend most of my time not thinking about it. But if I were to think about it, I would like to focus on improving aviation safety, and if Dr. Boehm-Davis recommends we look at training, then that sounds good to me. What Dr. Boehm-Davis does is she approaches improving training by looking first at things like task analysis and then moves to knowledge elicitation and eventually to procedural steps, methods, and selection rules.

It was interesting to learn about how the hierarchy in the cockpit can lead pilots to ignore information from others. This has led to work on “crew resource management” with emphasis on improving communication. Her team helped develop protocols and then embed them in manuals and training procedures. They were also able to compare the use of the new procedures and the use of the typical procedures. From a research standpoint, this involves improving inter-rater reliability among raters and evaluating pilots for whether they follow established procedures. The results were that the new procedures had a positive and sustained impact on performance in both simulators and in flight, as well as based on instructor evaluation and self-assessment.

And this was just procedural training. Dr. Boehm-Davis also reported on her research on conceptual training, so that pilots have a better understanding why certain procedures are in place, as well as exemplar training for specific issues that may be particularly challenging (like flying with a small child attached to the windshield).

The presentation exposed students to the many ways in which psychology is vital in various real-world applications and concerns. Let me just add that, as someone who has a vested interest in the results of this research (someone who has to fly often) let’s hope that these improvements are being used consistently today. Actually, Dr. Boehm-Davis reiterated the stats on how safe flight is relative to other forms of transportation — an important cognitive exercise for all of us who travel!

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