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Issue 11 - 2022

“Do you know what west is, sir?” This radio message was recorded earlier this year in Lisbon, Portugal. This message is not the first and, for sure, will not be the last when it comes to communication breakdowns in aviation. However, the significance of this incident is explicitly related to the overloaded working memory of pilots during take-off, initial climb, descent, approach, and landing phases in each flight.

It was early in the afternoon in Lisbon when a Cessna 340A departed from Cascais-Tejo Regional Airport (LPCS). Pilots were instructed to comply with ESP3N SID after departure. However, the tower controller noticed an irregularity between the route Cessna was supposed to take and the route it actually took. Therefore, the tower controller tried to contact pilots for five times but they did not receive the call. When pilots finally responded to the call, they had already diverged from the instructed SID significantly. That’s why the tower controller instructed the Cessna to “fly west immediately” so that the aircraft would be back on the right direction. Unfortunately, this was not the only thing that went wrong with this flight. The pilots were also climbing although they had been instructed to maintain 3,000 feet. This chain of events was clearly threatening the safety in Lisbon airspace. Amid such chaos, the following magical words were heard from the controller on frequency 120.305, “Do you know what west is, sir?” This appeared to be a milestone in this incident because the pilots finally got clued in their “wrongdoings”. Having realized the problem, pilots then complied with succeeding instructions of the tower controller and the approach controller later on. Although nobody was hurt in this incident, it shed light on an ongoing issue of cognitive overload in aviation. 

This issue has been taken up by aviation authorities as early as 1970s, and many conclusions have been drawn regarding the cognitive processes of pilots. For instance, a report published by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1992 highlighted the importance of being a competent decision maker. This finding has its roots in the cognitive information processing system because a great number of aviation accidents had been reported to have caused from “pilot error” in which cognitive information processing was reported to be the underlying cause. Essentially, cognitive information processing theory portrays human mind as possessing a structure consisting of components for processing information. In this structure, attention, perception, encoding, storage, and retrieval of knowledge are the major components and they influence the processing of information heavily. With regard to how it functions, it can be argued that stimuli enter the sensory register and from there go to short-term memory. Here they are stored in long-term memory through rehearsal and encoding. Then, the information can be retrieved from long-term memory and brought to the working memory for use. In this sense, the information processing model is very much like that of a computer. Therefore, the so-called computer may malfunction if it is overloaded. Accordingly, FAA’s report concluded that development and use of Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) training materials significantly reduced human performance error (HPE). With this in mind it can still be argued that the incident in Lisbon airspace has once more showed how important it is to reduce the cognitive load of pilots to ensure safety in aviation. Two issues in this incident should be discussed in great detail.

First, it was clear from the voice recordings that pilots were quite busy with flying the Cessna 340A and thus, they were not tuned in the correct frequency. Although it is a standard procedure to comply with the directions of the air traffic controller and tune in the correct frequency based on the instructions, it took the pilots of Cessna a long time before they finally noticed that they were not responding the calls of the tower controller. This clearly showed that the workload of pilots significantly increased their cognitive load and, in turn, impeded the application of basic radio communication procedures. Second, the cognitive load of pilots must be so high at the time of first contact with the tower controller after multiple attempts that they failed to comprehend the instruction to “fly west immediately”. It is possible that the background noise might have also contributed to this communication breakdown but it is still not as significant as the cognitive overload of pilots. As a conclusion, it should be noted that cognitive load may lead not only to operational drawbacks but also to communication breakdowns. 

So, what is this interplay between Aviation English and cognitive load?

Lack of English language proficiency is not an emerging issue in aviation; it rather dates back late 20th century when the industry was shocked by Tenerife disaster. The most significant takeaway from this accident was that civil aviation authorities realized the need to develop a solid understanding of the influence of English language proficiency on flight safety. This led to the implementation of some regulations regarding the attainment of a certain degree of proficiency in English in order to get a license or retain it. However, the authorities were still missing a crucial point, which was described in another report of Federal Aviation Administration on October 2008. The report entitled “Pilot English Language Proficiency and the Prevalence of Communication Problems at Five U.S. Air Route Traffic Control Centers” heavily reported on the challenges faced by US pilots and air traffic controllers in terms of communicating over radiotelephony. Veronika Prinzo and Alfred Hendrix, the authors, examined the communications of pilots and controllers working at five U.S. air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs) between March and August 2006. The overall findings in this report pointed two issues. First, use of English for radio communication significantly varied in terms of the number of communication problems, time spent on frequency, and the number of messages transmitted. All these three issues were in favor of native English-speaking pilots compared to non-native English-speaking pilots. Second, 75% of communication problems among foreign aircrafts flying over five US ARTCCs were caused by English language proficiency. In a similar vein, US pilots reported having more communication breakdowns when flying over airspaces where English is not spoken as first language. However, these were not the most significant issues in this report. Reading in between lines, it can be noticed that readback errors are common in almost every flight and memory overload leads to these errors. To put it another way, the limited nature of human working memory makes the jobs of pilots even more challenging. That is, they have to complete several tasks simultaneously during take-off and landing, which include both the control of avionic systems and communication with the air traffic controllers. This burden on the shoulders of pilots is doubled when English language proficiency comes into play in busy airspaces. At these times, pilots have to deal with the psychological problems caused by cognitive overload as well as possible outcomes of lack of English language proficiency, both of which have been reported to have a significant impact on flight performance.

As real as it gets! 

Identifying the problems is always the first step and the next step is inevitably providing effective solutions. So, what is the solution to the issue of pilots’ cognitive overload? Here is the answer. It is true that simulator trainings are indispensable parts of pilot trainings. They are used to simulate real flight conditions and they are great ways to get familiar with possible in-flight malfunctions. Also, they are regarded as the safest way to simulate the worst-case scenarios. In this sense, simulators are literally the life savers. That’s why they are used in many other industries including health, engineering, safety etc. However, there is another area in which the use of simulators is particularly important: education.

For many years instructional designers investigated the ways to optimize learning based on the needs of learners and many theories have been proposed accordingly. These included experiential learning, content and language integrated learning (CLIL), problem based learning, etc.  Each theory has been proved to be effective in one way or another since learning is a continuing process and each learner has a different way of preferred learning. However, with the advances in technology and the qualifications needed in the 21st century, we were introduced a new and unique way of learning: simulation. Having its roots in multimedia learning theory, simulation has emerged as a game changer, particularly in pilot training. The principles and heuristics of multimedia learning theory have application with both young and adult learners in various levels of education including K-12 and higher education as well as military, corporate, government, and informal education. Such a diverse application is without doubt based on its core principle that all learners can independently process auditory and visual information. Besides, it envisions that these learners all have limited working memory resources and they require cognitive resources to process new information. 

On the other hand, the multimedia learning is closely tied to cognitive load theory. This theory mainly argues that there is a limited amount of information working memory can hold at one time since it is limited in nature. Therefore, it should be given particular attention that learning materials should not overload the learners by offering additional activities that would not directly contribute to learning. With this in mind, student pilots should not be exposed to more than what they can handle during flight trainings. As for simulation trainings, student pilots should be offered scenarios which would potentially challenge them but not directly cause cognitive overload. Although it is possible that these issues are already taken into account in pilot trainings in general, and particularly in type ratings, it is for sure that simulation is not a part of radio communication trainings yet. Here is where the aviation industry can potentially benefit from multimedia learning theory and simulation.

It is true that poor working memory affects people’s lives negatively. For instance, a person may consistently leave out his/her keys or wallet. Likewise, you plan to do some work at home, but you forget to bring the items you will need. In the case of aviation, poor working memory can have detrimental effects on pilots as well. During flight operations, working memory capacity pushes pilots to use their executive cognitive abilities, which heavily causes cognitive overloading issues. Therefore, pilots with poor working memory capacity may not attain the same level of flight performance as their counterparts with higher working memory capacity. With regard to working memory workload, it has been set forth that communication task completion rates significantly varied in two groups of pilots: high working memory capacity and low working memory capacity. In the light of this information, airline companies should definitely invest on working memory research so that they can take a big step towards minimizing incidents caused by pilot errors.

Luckily, we now know that we can extend our working memory capacity and thus, we can make room for other tasks. That is, improving the working memory capacity of pilots can help them overcome the issue of cognitive overload which, in turn, enable them to both complete flight management tasks and effectively communicate with air traffic controllers. The real question is “How can the working be improved?” In fact, some of the techniques to improve the working memory capacity are already in use in the aviation industry. These include using checklists for tasks with multiple steps and breaking big chunks of information into small, bite-sized pieces. Apart from what is already applied by pilots, there is always more they can do. Since the core principle of improving working memory capacity is to familiarize pilots with cases similar to the real life, integration of simulation into air traffic communication practices will definitely make a big difference for pilots. 

ICAO safety goals 

It is true that stakeholders in the aviation industry have made great contributions to ensure safety by implementing new regulations and offering continuous professional development trainings to pilots and air traffic controllers. However, the status of Aviation English as the lingua franca will always pose a threat to effective communication since the number of its non-native speakers has outnumbered the native speakers. That’s why the incident in Lisbon, Portugal earlier this year involving a Cessna 340A and the tower controller is just one of many other communication breakdowns happening around the world every day. Being a high-tech industry, aviation still has a lot to do with technology in terms of its integration into pilot training. Allocating some of the pilot training to the simultaneous practice of both flight management and air traffic communication can yield great results. To illustrate, during a simulation sessions pilots can be given a scenario in which they need to complete a non-standard flight operation successfully by communicating with an air traffic controller. Most of the time this training is offered in pilots’ native language rather than the target language. Therefore, integrating Aviation English as the lingua franca in such trainings would definitely challenge them since they will be required to complete this task by heavily pushing the limits of their working memory capacity. Besides, pilots can be exposed to Aviation English trainings in which VR is used as part of the training to familiarize them with different accents. Such trainings would contribute to the comprehension of air traffic messages transmitted by other non-native English speaking air traffic controllers. Resolving this issue mentioned in the report of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would, in turn, lead to ensuring safer flight operations in the world. These improvements have the potential to greatly contribute to International Civil Aviation Organization’s goal to achieve and maintain zero fatalities in commercial operations by 2030 and beyond 

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