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Aging and Situational Awareness: what pilot training can teach us!

February 13, 2013
Cockpit SIM

Cockpit SIM

I have written previously about one of my sons. He is a pilot of many thousands of hours of flying, and yet every two or three times a year he goes through a “SIM” where, among other things, he is tested under simulated flying conditions in order to demonstrate that he can cope with any emergency. He also checks and trains other pilots and is checked and trained himself by a chief pilot. The chief pilot and the airline are checked and regulated by CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety people. And a good thing too, I can hear you say. Just imagine if all doctors or teachers or builders had someone sitting at their elbow looking for best practice?

Situational awareness: a pilot’s flying hours and cognitive ability 

Situational awareness (SA) is a skill often deemed essential to pilot performance in both combat and noncombat flying. Given the complexity of the cockpit, co-pilot , weather  threats and updates, airport controls etc., a pilot requires a continuous “perception of self and aircraft in relation to the dynamic environment of flight…..and the ability to forecast, then execute tasks based on that perception (Carroll, 1992).”

A study in 1997 found that number of flying hours was the best predictor of “Situational Awareness”. The more hours -the greater experience- made pilots more situationally aware. When the researchers controlled for number of flying hours, the best predictor of situational awareness was cognitive ability, namely working memory, spatial reasoning and divided attention.

Aging and situational awareness

Well I have decided that I will adopt the concept of situational awareness in everyday life. I have had a few “crashes ” (or falls) recently and don’t want any more if I can help it. I will walk the pavements with greater trepidation, I don’t mess about on bikes with the kids any more, I watch for the steps and the hose in the garden. I have become situationally aware. My doctor said (as he examined my cuts and bruises)  “Margaret, you are OLD”…   Even if I don’t feel old I need to be more aware. Like a pilot I have many hours of living behind me (and many ahead), and I need to be able to sharpen my predictions so that I can adapt to many different situations.

HABIT is part of the problem

I don’t pay enough attention to things that potentially may be threatening because of habit. I have been doing the same things, walking the same hallway and driveway getting the letters etc., walking the same carparks and pavements. I don’t seem to be sufficiently situationally aware to lift and place my feet quite as I should. Rough ground or uneven pavements or slopes down to a rocky beach need more attention. My habits have been too much in charge and their expectations are that everything will be as before.  I now feel that my attention needs to be focused more immediately on the task in hand, (like in a cockpit) while I also engage in completing what I set out to accomplish. ….nowhere is this more important than when driving!

Situational awareness captures the richness and complexity of the pilot’s world.

For pilots SA reflects the importance  of mission accomplishment. “SA captures the richness and complexity of the pilot’s world.” It emphasizes perceiving what is important and then uses that perception to guide the selection and performance of appropriate behaviors.  Age and falling has brought this concept to my attention and together with more detailed training in working memory, spatial awareness and divided attention as in the Posit Science Brain HQ training program, things should improve.

Reference: Herbert H. Bell Wayne L. Waag (1997) Using Observer Ratings to Assess Situational Awareness in Tactical Air Environments. United States Air Force Armstrong Laboratory.

March 1997

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