Expertise In Aviation


Expertise allows for the ‘short cutting’ of complex problem solving through the use heuristic decision making principles. In the absence of expertise, decision making is dependent on following a sequence of individual rule based criteria which may not be achievable in the given time frame, may not have yet been devised or, may lead to cognitive overload.

As a consequence expertise is increasingly seen as a crucial element for successful decision making in complex and/or novel situations, such as those commonly experienced in aviation (Salas & Maurino, 2010 1). However, despite its central importance to problem solving, its characteristics, along with the path to attainment, are often poorly defined (Hurling, 2000 2).

Definition of Expertise and an expert

'Expertise' and an ‘expert’ are two separate, but related concepts.

Expertise can be best defined as a collection of skills, experience. This expertise allows for improved problem solving by replacing sequential decision making processes with more heuristic decision making methods. Ultimately this allows for faster and more accurate decision making, particularly in complex and/or unique situations (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3)

An expert can be best defined as someone who uses expertise to achieve a high level of performance in their particular domain, or, someone who is capable of doing the right thing at the right time (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3). They possess a wide range of cognitive processing and problem solving skills and apply them in an almost intuitive fashion. Importantly these skills are not discrete, but are subjective in that they are relative to the social group of comparison (Perezgonzalez, 2005 4). Overall, an expert has been summarised by Gordon (1992 5) as;

1. Having more detailed knowledge structures, and
2. Perceiving problems more abstractly than novices, and
3. Perceiving problems relative to the context, and
4. Being much faster than novices.

It is important to note that while related, expertise and an expert are separate concepts. This is due to the fact that expertise is generally related to a particular domain (such as aviation, medicine, mathematics) and is therefore context dependent. Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer (1993 6) reinforce this distinction by demonstrating that experts who displayed dominance in their speciality domain against novices, showed no difference when compared in other domains. This highlights the importance of ensuring that the anticipated expertise is relevant to the situation in which it will be required to be employed (Perezgonzalez, 2005 4).

How is expertise gained?

One of the first researchers into experts and expertise, Galton, concluded that the ability to become an expert was primarily through genetic transfer (Ericsson et al, 1993 6).

However, apart from a few notable exceptions (such a height) (Ericsson et al, 1993 6), the current view is that expertise, and therefore becoming an expert, is not hereditary but is achieved through an extended period of dedicated practice (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3).

Dedicated practice is distinctly different from other forms such as casual practice, routine performance and normal paid employment (Ericsson et al, 1993 6). It is highly intensive, involves self-monitoring and error correction and critically, is underpinned with the individual’s dedication to self-improvement (Salas & Maurino, 2010 1). This practice is difficult, not inherently enjoyable, normally involves some form cost and is devoid of instant results. As a result, deliberate practice also requires the overcoming of negative motivational and outside influences (Ericsson et al, 1993 6).

This requirement for a prolonged period of dedicated practice has been clearly demonstrated in many fields such as marathon running, typing and music (Ericsson et al, 1993 6). This research provides sound reinforcement of Simon & Chase’s rule that becoming an expert requires a minimum of 10 years dedicated practice (Ericsson et al, 1993 6). Typical progression from novice to expert is shown in the table below.

Phase of Expertise Category of Expert
Beginning Phase (Acquisition of declarative knowledge and domain general problem solving skills Beginner, Student or Novice
Approx. 1-2 years of active experience and training Intermediate
Many years of active experience and training (Full time 40-80 hours per week) Routine Expert or Journeyman
More than 10 years of full time experience and training Expert
Adapted from Adams & Ericsson (1992 3)

Throughout this training (and the experience it brings), the expert continually builds schemas relating to individual events and the actions and processes resulting in successful outcomes (Ericsson & Smith, 1991 7). As the experience builds, these schemas continue to develop both in terms of their complexity and their relationship with one another (Ainsworth, n.d. 8). Additionally, this training has been proven to modify brain function, allowing a shift from non-specific perceptual processing towards higher level functions such as planning and management (Salas & Maurino, 2010 1). This knowledge, schemas and adapted brain function are collectively known as expertise. This expertise frees the individual from restrictive linear decision making processes allowing them to rapidly assess complex and novel situations, select an appropriate course of action and then successfully implement it. This is expert performance (Ericsson et al, 1993 6).

Due the burdens which dedicated practice place on the individual, poor management may lead to ‘burn-out’ and ultimately sub-expert performance. As such, in the pursuit of prolonged practice, a final, but critically important key attribute demonstrated by experts is the ability to carefully balance practice with leisure and recreational activities, thereby avoiding ‘burn-out’ (Ericsson et al, 1993 6).

Aviation Example: What defines an expert pilot?

The general characteristics of expertise and an expert have been proven to be equally applicable in the role of a pilot (Ericsson et al, 1993 6).

The expert pilot is separated from the novice pilot primarily through their problem solving ability. The novice pilot carefully selects discrete information to act upon and then focuses on correctly executing the required solution. The expert pilot is, in contrast, adaptive (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3). He/she continually assesses the situation, rapidly selects the required course of action and the successfully implement it (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3). This progression can also be thought of as using training and experience to move from knowing what to do, to knowing how to do it, before finally knowing when to do it (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3).

This skill set, expertise, allows the expert pilot to generate optimal (or near-optimal solutions) in response to situations which are particularly complex or novel such as the aviation emergency examples listed below (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3).

1. Engine Failure. United Airlines DC10. Sioux City, Iowa.
2. Cargo Door Failure. United Airlines B747. Honolulu, Hawaii.
3. Fuselage Structural Failure. Aloha Airlines B737. Maui, Hawaii.
4. Fuel Starvation. Air Canada B767. Gimli, Canada.

These examples also highlight the limits of Aviation Decision Making (ADM) as in these situations, the novice, with his/her reliance on rule based decision making, would quickly become overwhelmed (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3).

By reviewing these occurrences a number of common traits of the expert pilot can be identified (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3);

1. Use of basic airmanship skills.
2. Rapid recall of training.
3. A balanced and reasoned approach when faced with an emergency.
4. An overall positive approach to the problem and the expected outcome.
5. Self-confident and optimistic.

Finally it is important to note that a pilot is separated from more static professions in that he/she must continually practice for an event which will most likely never occur. As such, reaching expert status in aviation requires the slow accumulation of ‘on-the-job’ experience. Due to the relatively unstructured nature of this experience, along with the infrequent access to training experts, the successful completion of dedicated practice to achieve expert status in aviation has a greater reliance on the personal motivation of the individual than it does in other fields (Adams & Ericsson, 1992 3).

The role of the aviation organisation in promoting expertise

Perezgonzalez (2005 4) highlights the importance of expertise in achieving acceptable health and safety levels in the organisation. However, due to the inherent hurdles involved with gaining expertise, namely its cost, lack of inherent enjoyment and instant results, organisations must take an active role in developing their staff towards expert status (Ericsson et al, 1993 6).

Perezgonzalez (2005 4) notes that expertise cannot be generalised simply from years of experience of employees however, it can be introduced into the organisation through a number of ways, specifically;

1. Recruitment and placement procedures.
2. Arrangements to ensure expect cover for absent staff.
3. Training.
4. General promotion and surveillance schemes.

Of the methods listed above, training has been identified as the primary means for introducing expertise into the organisation (Perezgonzalez, 2005 4). This is due to a number of reasons; firstly, training is more effective at targeting the cognitive level (as opposed to associative and autonomous levels which benefit the most from experience); secondly, training can compensate for inadequate policies in other areas (such as selection); and thirdly, training can be varied to suit different populations, topics, and competence levels (Perezgonzalez, 2005 4).

Higher levels of expertise are positively correlated with increased operational competence and a decrease in the number of mistakes made (Perezgonzalez, 2005 4). In a safety critical industry such as aviation, it is critical that the aviation organisation correctly identifies the levels of expertise required from each of its functions, is aware of the impediments to the natural development of expertise, develops and implements effective long term strategies to overcome these impediments and continually monitors organisational performance to ensure improvements are made when required.

1. Salas, E. & Maurino, D. (2010). Human Factors in Aviation. Oxford, England: Elsevier.
2. Hurling, R.W. (2000). Operational Definitions of Expertise and Competence. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 2(8). doi:10.1177/152342230000200103
3. Adams, R.J. & Ericsson, K.A. (1992). Introduction to Cognitive Processes of Expert Pilots. U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration report DOT/FAA/RD-92/12. Retrieved from
4. Perezgonzalez, J.D. (2005). An Alternative Way of Managing Health & Safety. USA: Lulu Inc.
5. Gordon, S.E. (1992). Implications of Cognitive Theory for Knowledge Acquisition. In Hoffman, R.R. (Ed.) The Physcology of Expertise: Cognitive Research and Empirical AI (pp.99-120). New York, USA: Springer-Verlag
6. Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychophysical Review, 100(3), 363-406
7. Ericsson, K.A. & Smith, J. (1991). Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
8. Ainswoth, S. (n.d.). What is expertise? Nottingham University Psychology Department Hand-outs. Retrieved from

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Authors / Editors

Mike PearsonMike Pearson

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