Pilot Performance - "Unlearning"
by Henry K.  

Unlearning dysfunctional sensory perceptions, assumptions, and behaviours ... to free up conscious attention and awareness

Pilots are trained to recognize the limitations of the sensory systems that can produce false perceptions of reality. A few simple maneuvers are usually enough to prove that we cannot rely on the senses when outside visual cues are obscured. Effective performance requires an ‘unlearning’ of typical perceptions and responses, and the systematic cross checking of perceptions and senses to aircraft instruments and navigation aids.

There are many situations encountered in which the sensory systems malfunction or are liable to produce false perceptions. Illusions occur with a lack of differentiation as in whiteouts, black holes, texture, perspective, gradients, precipitation, and a variety of factors in combination. The spatial senses of positioning and balance are especially erroneous under instrument flying conditions and must be ignored to execute maneuvers accurately.

The sensory limitations are further complicated by the emotional and intellectual processes that distort reality and lead to inaccurate judgments and errors. Expectations play an important role in the interpretation of information, as information is screened by known experience and images, distorting the new and unique aspects of what is in view. When there is a clear expectation of what should have been said, the listener often remembers this as being what was heard, even though something different was said. Expectations and assumptions can seriously limit the accuracy of perception, and pilots are constantly aware of the potential of error in anything less than the full attention to the operations at hand.

Situational awareness is limited by the profound emotional makeup of individuals, and the process of unlearning requires discipline to override the pervasiveness of ego, fear, and self confidence. The lack of self confidence can be moderated by training and proficiency although a healthy measure of conscious respect is appropriate to stimulate awareness and the ‘juice’ of intensity for peak performance. The limitations and distortions related to ego and over confidence however, remain constant challenges to accurate judgment and decision making.

Objective awareness is further complicated by typical tendencies of human behaviour as in an increase in confidence as more information is acquired even though the information may be unreliable or irrelevant. More vivid and ‘memorable’ events tend to be overestimated, while less vivid events that are rarely experienced tend to be underestimated. Through having no assumptions, an awareness of the limitations of expectations, and in being trained to cross reference instruments to ensure accuracy, pilots perceive and interpret the environment with precision, as it is only then that the appropriate responses can be developed. 

The flight environment places demands on humans far beyond normal capabilities, and requires the unlearning of dysfunctional perceptions, assumptions, and behaviours for effective performance.

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Henry K. is a private pilot, author, artist, actor, whale watcher, fly fisherman, tour guide, seasonal server and surfer residing in Tofino, B.C. Canada, as well as a contributing editor to The CEO Refresher.

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