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Morrow focuses on pilot expertise and the aging mind

For something as complex as an aircraft instrument panel, the method many general aviation pilots use to process flight information for their instruments seems decidedly low-tech.

Published on July 31, 2006

As air traffic controllers feed them information on course heading, altitude, and other flight data, pilots write the numbers down on a notepad. The notepads are such an integral part of flying for many pilots that human factors researcher and Beckman faculty member Dan Morrow realized he had to include them in his laboratory experiments testing cognitive aging and pilot expertise.

"I had done several studies without note taking and pilots said 'you realize of course that you're not letting me do what I'm trained to do,'" Morrow said.

The pilots had been trained to take notes while receiving air traffic control information, and then use the notes to repeat the controllers' instructions back to them and for programming the data into their instruments. In testing pilots, Morrow wanted to make the lab experiment even more difficult than what pilots experienced in their cockpits. But the test subjects' complaints made him rethink the experiment parameters.

"It got me to thinking 'I'm looking at expertise and the extent to which expertise reduces age differences. Well if part of expertise is the ability to use external aids proficiently, then I'm not looking at all the different facets of expertise,'" Morrow said.

So Morrow, an associate professor in the Human Factors Division at the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation, began designing experiments that included notepads. Morrow said the notepads are what is called an external aid, and can serve as an external form of working memory. He has recently expanded his research toward building a better notepad.

Morrow has devised and is testing an electronic notepad for pilots called an e-pad. Previous testing has shown that pilots using notepads, which are usually held in place on a velcro-bound kneepad, looked down to take notes or read them back, meaning they weren't looking out the window or at their instruments. While useful, Morrow said the notepads could have a cost in overall task management.

The current version of the e-pad is stationary and located next to the instrument panel on a monitor, close to the cockpit window. Morrow said that during flight a pilot's perceptual motor attention is mostly focused on the yoke and scanning the instruments.

"If you've got a more integrated e-pad, you can do the communication tasks with less interference from the scanning of the instruments compared to the notepad," he said.

The e-pad has a touch screen, with three buttons that move up or down to record flight information. Morrow said the e-pad could serve the purpose of adding an external memory aid without the disadvantages of a notepad.

"They both are, hopefully, convenient forms of external memory," he said. "The advantage I'm hoping to have with the e-pad, because of where it's placed, is it doesn't have the attention limitations."

How pilots interact with their environment and communicate is at the heart of Morrow's research into cognitive aging and expertise. The e-pad study is part of a broader research line into external aids for maintaining pilot performance in tasks such communication, comprehension, and decision-making.

"That's part of what we're working on - to come up with external aids for communication that will be consistent with older pilots' expertise and not work against what we know is compromised by general aging," Morrow said.

Morrow, a member of the Human Perception and Performance group at Beckman, said the normal aging process brings about cognitive decline in working memory, slower processing speed, and other factors that complicate the task of listening and understanding.

"We also know that true for pilots," Morrow said. "Older pilots look like everybody else in terms of how they perform on standard working memory tests, for example."

When Morrow first designed his experiments, he had pilots of all ages listen to air traffic control instructions and repeat them back, without benefit of taking notes.

"Older pilots don't do as well as younger pilots," he said. "You can account for the differences in read-back ability in terms of differences in working memory. So it's pretty clear that if you throw a lot of information at pilots - at least in the laboratory - they won't be as effective as younger pilots in repeating back that information."

That's what got him interested in looking at external aids.

"Generally issues of expertise in these kinds of studies point to the importance of interacting with the environment," Morrow said. "It's not all knowledge in the head. It's the fact that they are very fluent in interacting with the environment to reduce the need for working memory. That's an important aspect of expertise to capture when you're looking at compensation."

Allowing test subjects to take notes provided more insight. Using pilots and a non-pilot control group - all between the ages of 20 and 65 and matched for education and cognitive ability - Morrow's research showed that if people didn't take notes, the pilots did better than the non-pilots in repeating the instructions back. That might be expected since the process of reading back instructions was a domain-relevant task for the pilots.

But the research also showed that even though older pilots did better than non-pilots, they still showed the same rate of cognitive decline. When subjects were allowed to take notes, and repeat the instructions back by looking at their notes as they would if they were flying, the older pilots didn't show cognitive decline.

"So the interesting thing is that you still see an age decline among the non-pilots but the pilots are performing basically perfectly, regardless of age," Morrow said.

Morrow said that pilots' note taking "reduces that cognitive bottleneck that we know gets worse with age. That to me is the bottom line.

"So this study showed that in an isolated communication-only condition, external aids are really helpful for communication, especially for older pilots."

All of the tests were done in the Beckman Institute flight simulator. Morrow's collaborators on the project were faculty members Chris Wickens and Esa Rantanen from the Institute of Aviation and Psychology graduate students Dervon Chang and Jamie Marcus.

Previous testing had shown a 10 to 15 improvement in read back accuracy with the notepads, a number that was replicated by the e-pad studies. Experiments were done with six older and six younger pilots, and with flight conditions running from good weather to severe turbulence.

Morrow is hoping to gain FAA funding to test an e-pad that would be portable and more integrated electronically with instruments. He has thought about adding additional components to it, including the capability to store flight or pilot histories.

Commercial pilots have a computer system they enter air traffic control information into, but most general aviation pilots rely on their notepads. Morrow said some of the pilots he's tested showed interest in using an e-pad.

"A couple of pilots said 'hey make me one of these,'" he said.

In this article

  • Daniel G. Morrow
    Daniel G. Morrow's directory photo.