Psychological Hazards in Aviation Emergencies

Introduction to Psychological Hazards in Aviation

For pilots, psychological hazards can be broadly based around ones actual and perceptions of their ability, their willingness to take risks, their situational awareness and their personality’s judgement towards decision making.

Mental capacity

For a novice pilot the volume of new sensory information being received during early flight training is high. This high mental workload means the brain is often working to its full capacity. Any increase in workload at this stage would simply overload the pilot. Therefore presenting them with new tasks or problems requiring decision making will likely be unsuccessful due to a lack of available mental capacity. Once the pilot’s flight experience increases and their basic motor skills become automatic, more accurate flying and situational awareness skills can be developed as they have increased their ‘residual’ mental capacity. The amount of ‘residual’ mental capacity a pilot possesses gives them the best chance of making prompt and better processed decisions, which are especially important in complex situations such as an emergency.

Arousal and overload

Mental overload occurs when workload is too high. Either the body sensors are overwhelmed or the brains mental activity (arousal) level has reached its limit. ‘Load shedding’ will occur in this situation. With the pilot disregarding certain actions and information, their performance will drop and the likelihood of further problems and mistakes will increase. The potential for accidents to occur is also increased.
There is an ideal level of arousal where performance is at its maximum before it decreases due to overload. This is the ideal operating area for peak performance. Conversely, pilot performance will also decrease in when levels of mental activity are too low.

Performance vs. Arousal Curve

Performance vs. Arousal Curve (image embedded from [] on 29 September 2012)

Factors affecting information processing;

Good information processing and brain functioning depends upon many factors. Disruptions in the transfer can adversely affect a pilot’s situational awareness and decision making. Factors include;

- How accurately and completely learned information can be recalled.
- The time at which and when the information was learned or last reinforced.
- Whether there was a distracting force or the learner was preoccupied during the learning.
- Stress at either the time of learning or at the time of retrieval.
- Difficulty during learning due to visual or hearing issues.
- Illness or hypoxia.

A mind-set is another psychological situation common in pilots. After hours of flying in a procedural environment, when a routine expected situation is reached the pilot often has a strong expectation of seeing what they expect to see, not what is actually there. Danger occurs when the pilot acts on the mind-set, not realising the actual situation is different and may require an alternative response.

Factors affecting judgement and decision making

When information is presented to pilots, safe, logical judgements can be made when they have enough available residual mental capacity and they have maintained good situational awareness. The flight as a result can be operated in a safe manner. This is achieved by following a number of ‘behaviours’ in the correct fashion. These include:

Skill Based – The learned and automated motor skills required for accurate flying.
Rule Based – Following the prescribed rules and procedures in aviation law and airmanship.
Decision Based – A safe, decided plan of action in response to the aircrafts current or expected future situation.

The ability to follow the correct behaviour and combine them assumes the pilots brain is working properly.
Personality can have adverse effects on behaviour and the overall safety of a flight. Aviation psychologists have labelled these hazardous thought processes and have been coined them the Notorious 5.

1 – Resignation - 'What’s the use? Forget it I give up!'
2 – Anti-authority - 'Why should I listen to you?'
3 – Impulsivity - 'Do it QUICKLY!'
4 – Invulnerability - 'Nah I don’t think it'll happen to me!'
5 – Macho - 'Come on! I can do this!'

Hazardous thought processes in Emergency situations

In real emergencies such as a forced landing, these hazardous thought processes can interfere with a pilot’s ability to manage the situation and respond promptly. Factors include:

- Unwillingness to accept the emergency:

The shear thought that in a very short period of time the aircraft will be on the ground regardless of what actions the pilot attempts, can paralyze the mind. By not correctly following their emergency training, or handling the situation at all and attempting to delay the landing, can worsen the already time critical situation. In this state the pilot may fail to lower the nose of the aircraft, drawing the potential stall closer; waste time being indecisive about a suitable landing area, or failing to choose one within reach at all. It may also cause them to fail to maintain control of the aircraft while attempting to work out what the problem is.

- Fear of damaging the Aircraft:

During simulated forced landing training pilots are expected to find a suitable safe area to land, but are often set up by their instructor in the earlier stages. In the event of a real forced landing the terrain below if usually less forgiving that of the area the instructor decided to pull the throttle out in the simulation. The pilot who has been conditioned that landing should be attempted in a safe area will typically make poor decisions when this is not possible in their circumstances. These include: Choosing a site further away and hence stretching the glide, lowering control speed and leaving a very small margin of error for the landing; or after an engine failure on take-off, attempting to turn back to the runway with insufficient altitude. The influence behind this is usually that the pilot has either a financial stake in the aircraft or a mind-set that an undamaged aircraft equals unharmed passengers. However that philosophy has proven not to be the case in many accidents and should not be a pilot’s motivation to ignore basic training rules.

- Fear of personal or passenger injury:

Fear is a necessary and expected element in an emergency. It provides the urgency and drive to ‘get the job done’ in order to survive. It is when fear leads to panic that grave mistakes are made and a situation can get exponentially worse. Effective emergency training will help make the situation appear more familiar. By maintaining composure and following the correct procedures the chance of survival is greatly improved. The ability to keep a level mind and apply training is just as important as pilot flying skill in an emergency.

Judgement training

Judgement training aims to prevent these hazardous thought processes in the cockpit by teaching pilots how personality traits can have negative effects on human information processing and the overall safety of a flight. The focus is predominantly to always ‘be in control’, follow the rules and understand their responsibilities as the pilot in command. Many serious accidents are a result of negative thought processes and hazardous personalities.
It is suggested to pilots that decision making or judgements should be made in a coordinated sequence.

1. Maintain situational awareness and realise when a situation has changed.
2. Decide if and how the change will affect the safety of the flight.
3. Formulate and compare possible actions, then choose the best most logical solution.
4. Whatever decision is made, even if it is to do nothing, it will require to be evaluated.


Understanding how we learn and learning limits, the way we process information and how personality can affect decisions make this area of psychology an important aspect of aviation human factors, especially in emergency situations.

1. Ewing, R. L. (2008). Aviation Medicine and other Human Factors for Pilots. Christchurch, New Zealand, 2008.
2. Federal Aviation Administration (2007). Airplane Flying Handbook. NY, 2007.
3. Eos Career Services, (2000). Fear and violence in stressed populations. Retrieved from

Want to know more?

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Hazardous Attitudes
Pilot Judgement
Aviation Decision Making

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