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Study Shows Why Expert Pilots Are Experts

SUNDAY, Dec. 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Expert pilots process visual information more efficiently than less experienced pilots, which explains why they make better decisions during landings, a new study shows.

Landing is one of the most difficult techniques for pilots to master, and 36 percent of all airplane crashes and 25 percent of fatal crashes occur during final approach and landing.

Researchers monitored the brain activity of eight expert pilots and 12 moderately experienced pilots while they were at the controls of a flight simulator. As they reached an altitude of 200 feet, the simulator showed the runway clearly or obscured by varying amounts of fog.

The pilots had to rapidly shift their gaze back and forth between the runway and their instruments, to quickly determine whether it was safe to try to land. Expert pilots made the correct decision 80 percent of the time, compared with 64 percent for the moderately experienced pilots.

The brain scans revealed that the expert pilots displayed only half as much brain activity during the test as the moderately experienced pilots, according to the study published recently in the journal PLoS One.

"The data show that the expert pilot seems to just know what to look for, where to look and when to look," lead author Maheen Adamson, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said in a university news release.

The researchers traced that ability back to an area of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is involved in regulating gaze as the eyes quickly shift between different objects.

The findings could lead to new technology and techniques that help pilots develop more efficient brain behaviors to improve flight safety, according to the researchers.

More information

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration offers airline passenger safety tips.

SOURCE: Stanford University, news release, Nov. 26, 2014


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