Photo: Lloyd Horgan

Most of us will recognise amongst our colleagues that figure who has an unmatched knowledge of their aircraft and operational procedures but isn’t a natural team player, doesn’t share thought processes much, and just perhaps doesn’t quite integrate with the rest of his/her colleagues as comfortably as others. We admire technical knowledge in aviation, but not only it is relatively easy to gain if you dedicate time to it (and have an unwavering focus on learning it to the detriment of other things), it is also only half the picture. 

The same cannot really be said of the soft skills and the non-technical side to being a successful aviator. This is the other half of the picture, and these are not the product of experience in the aircraft or classroom alone. Leadership, teamwork, effective communication, empathy, instructional technique, assertiveness, cultural awareness, and so many others are developed in the wider world, and imported from there into the aeronautical environment.

We are not born with great non-technical skills. Nor are they the product of experience in the aircraft or classroom alone.

And it turns out that the broader our experience of the wider world, the more successful we are likely to become at navigating our way through complex organisational environments and tackling systems of systems such as aviation. This is because us humans’ greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialisation. Our particular human strengths lie elsewhere; in intellectual breadth, strategic thinking, critical analysis, and flexible learning. And it seems that the wider your domain knowledge the better.

This is the premise of David Epstein’s best selling book Range, which argues that in narrow, skills-based and rules-based worlds, humans may not have much to contribute for much longer. (Is the flying of manned aircraft a perfect example of this?) In his book Epstein makes the case that the most successful experts in many fields have a breadth of interests, citing as an example evidence that the world’s most successful – Nobel Prize winning – scientists are over 20 times more likely to partake in a performing art than other scientists. So, like the Nobel prize-winning scientists, are the very best aircrew also aficionados of amateur dramatics, self-taught pianists, ballet-dancers, sculptors, and painters?

Kind vs Wicked Environments

Like many others, aviation is a system which values narrow specialisation. Pilots are not simply pilots, they are type-rated pilots, specific experience in role and type is valued over generic aviation experiences. In many cases, breaking into the profession itself requires a single-minded dedication to aviation to the detriment of other activities, and once in the door it can take many years of patience and persistence with the same operator and the same operation, to be considered ready to reach command.

Despite all this commitment to specialist experience, how we are able to apply it depends upon the nature of the activity in question. As the pilotless cockpit looms on the horizon, the same is true of our potential contribution as the human in the system. In Range Epstein argues that there are two broadly defined environments in which we operate, the ‘Kind’, and the ‘Wicked’. They are opposites, and they are defined by the way in which we learn from them.

What is a ‘Kind’ learning environment?

A kind learning environment is one in which we can apply rules, we already have the answers to set questions, we can develop procedures, and learn fixed techniques which do not constantly evolve and change over time. Some good examples are the game of chess or golf, or learning the language of written music to learn to play an instrument. 

‘Kind’ learning environments are ones where patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is immediate and accurate. The mechanics of learning to fly an aircraft meet this definition well. We all started with effects of controls. In this activity the student moves the controls, observes what happens, attempts to correct any error, tries again, and repeats over and over until these motor skills are largely internalised. This is the definition of deliberate practice, and we employ it to good effect in many areas of aviation from take-offs and landings to emergency handling. 

In these cases the learning environment is kind because the learner improves through the simple act of engaging in the activity and striving for accuracy around set parameters. A kind learning environment, rewards and responds to repetitive practice, the dedication of hours of study or deliberate training of these skills over and over hone motor programmes and engrain pattern recognition in our brains. 

Gary Klein describes a model of recognition based decision-making which reflects this kind of learning and experience. He argues that hours of experience lead to expertise through the automatic and instinctive recognition of repeated patterns. However, this is not the whole picture as Daniel Kahnmann has so effectively demonstrated to us in his seminal book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” which debunked the idea that experience automatically translates to superior skill or decision-making. In very many real world scenarios where complexity is introduced, this is simply not the case.

Epstein argues that both these theories have validity within specific domains, but the evidence shows that in those domains which involve human behaviour, and where patterns do not clearly repeat, experience through repetition does not form the foundation of learning.

What is a ‘wicked’ learning environment?

A wicked learning environment is the flip side of the kind learning environment. As Epstein explains, “the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.”

The problem is that conditions that allow learning from repetition and rapid feedback such as the striking of a golf ball do not reflect many of the real world skills that we aspire to learning or the real world problems that we need to solve. For example, curing all cancer is a real world problem. It is huge and complex. It doesn’t depend only on applying answers to problems, and checking for feedback, but it depends upon us figuring out the right questions to ask in the first place over a massive range of puzzle pieces.

The Aviation Realm – Wicked or Kind?

The cogs of world aviation in motion is another excellent example of a complex system at work. It reflects an interconnected, rapidly changing world, in which no single element has a view or an understanding of the whole. By this definition it is clearly a wicked environment. However, we have seen how aviation provides us with an example of how a ‘kind’ learning environment – that of hand and feet manual flying, can sit within a wickedly complex system of systems. 

The manual flying of aircraft is a fine example of a world in which narrow, skills-based, and rules-based activities are being superseded by machine-learning and automation. In ‘kind’ learning environments we will no longer be able to compete against artificial intelligence which will outlearn and outperform us in repetitive, feedback based tasks. But when it comes to handling and interpreting strategic complexity, studies show that the bigger the picture the more unique the potential human contribution. Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialisation. It is our ability to integrate broadly.

Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialisation. It is our ability to integrate broadly.

In aviation, standardised operating procedures, checklists, and standardised practices are as ubiquitous as they are desirable. But they are tools of a kind learning environment, and with time almost anything that is predictable and standardised will be better achieved by automation than by a human operator. It is when events stray beyond the standard, routine, anticipated, or procedural that the Artificial Intelligence might come a cropper. Unfortunately, as is so often seen in accident investigation, this can also be true of the human! It is often the inability of crews to apply brain outside of the constraints of procedure and automation that catches them out. It’s fair enough; we have all been trained to think this way and become bound by the rigid framework of regulation and SOP. Like automation, SOPs are both a crutch and a trap.

Like automation, SOPs are both a crutch and a trap.

The Black Swan and thinking outside experience

In flight, the epitome of the wicked learning environment in action is a black swan event. A black swan refers to an unpredictable event in flight characterised by its extreme rarity, severe impact and impossibility of prediction. What the pilots have to deal with is outside of the realm of their previous experience, and here – in theory at least – is where the human potential of the aircrew should come into its own.

When discussing thinking outside of experience, David Epstein introduces the character of 17th- century father of astrophysics Johannes Kepler (of whom all commercial pilots will recall at least a vague familiarity from the General Navigation syllabus of the ATPL, where they were introduced to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion). Kepler was a man of extraordinary intellectual wanderings. In fact, he wandered so far from the boundaries of previous thought that as he mused the mechanics of the universe there was no evidence to draw upon to support his suppositions. This forced him into the use of analogies. 

Analogical thinking is (as far as we are aware) a uniquely human capability where we link the known to the unknown, or make parallels between the unknown and the known in order to reason through problems that we have never seen before, or problems that appear in unfamiliar contexts. It also gives us the ability to get our heads around a problem or a concept that we cannot see at all. A basic example of this which harks back to my experience of learning for the ATPL was listening to my instructor explain the ‘black magic’ of electricity as being similar in concept to water flowing from a tank where the water quantity represents electrical charge; water pressure, voltage; and water flow, electrical current.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the wider the experience of the world around us, and the broader our knowledge and interest in a range of topics and activities, the greater the facility we have for making analogies and drawing links between disciplines and intellectual domains. Kepler was a master of this, and the evidence shows that to make an intellectual breakthrough worthy of the Nobel Prize for science, you need to be able to do the same. Aircrew who have successfully managed complex emergency situations often cite the importance of experience beyond their cockpit knowledge. 

Relying on experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous .

David Epstein

Captain Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” is probably the most famous of these events in recent times, and is seen as a major endorsement of the critical role of non-technical flying skills to a good outcome. We are not born with great non-technical skills. Prior to his accident with US Airways he was a member of an aircraft accident investigation board in the Air Force, was a NASA aviation safety research consultant evaluating cockpit systems, and had co-authored a technical paper on crew decision-making errors in aviation. He had also collaborated with NASA to provide a blueprint for safer pilot training, procedures and standardisation; with the NTSB on airline procedures and training for emergency evacuations; and led the development and delivery of the airline’s first CRM course. Sully himself made the point that, “I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. And on January 15 (2009) the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” 

Range as Non-Technical Skills and Non-Technical skills as Range

David Epstein’s defence and advocacy of multidisciplinary range in education, training, interest and intellect is absolutely applicable to aircrew for success in aviation. It is not only a question of unlocking better decision-making and problem solving capacity, it is about linking wider lessons from our experiences beyond flying that will inform our style in areas like leadership, communication, decision-making, error management, stress and fatigue management, and team skills. 

Crew Resource Management (or the study of Non-Technical Skills) is itself a boundless multidisciplinary world, involving a huge breadth of topics. It also bridges the theoretical and practical. From Information Processing (how we think, perceive, and construct mental models) to the psychology of personality and behaviour, it spans pure science, social science, quasi-science, the art of communication, social-skills, and much more. With such scope it sort of goes without saying that non-technical skills in aircrew are not grown in annual one-day training. They are a composite of all the inputs into our personal experience from the professional world and far beyond. For the benefit those aviation addicts, aficionados, and workaholics, just remember to lift your head out of the cockpit from time to time so to speak. Be like Kepler: Stay curious!

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