Prioritisation for Pilots

Prioritisation for Pilots

Prioritisation for Pilots

Prioritisation for pilots is a dynamic process intimately connected and interwoven with many other issues, such as: Decision MakingAirmanshipSituational AwarenessChoicePilot PerceptionPilot Memory AidsPilot Workload and Crew Resource Management.

Effective prioritisation can be a balance between speed and accuracy – there will often be a trade-off between the two.

  • When speed (or immediacy) is essential then failure to prioritise effectively can lead to an increase in risk by delaying essential tasks beyond a point of usefulness (or recovery).
  • When accuracy is essential then failure to prioritise effectively can lead to latent errors based on false analyses or assumptions.

For example:

  • In the first case – a pilot may incorrectly consider gaining altitude during a go-around as having priority over gaining speed, this could lead to mismanagement of aircraft pitch and configuration, leading to a stall.
  • In the second case – a pilot may forego a second inspection of the aircraft for ice and snow contamination at the end of the holdover time when take-off clearance seems imminent. This may lead to take-off with a contaminated wing (or elevator) and subsequent loss of control soon after.

It can be seen from these examples that, effective prioritisation rests on accurate knowledge, sufficient practice, and use of resources (which will include task-sharing). These aspects can be addressed through effective training.

The importance of being both accurate and timely with prioritisation of tasks depends on the size and immediacy of potential risk, so a working understanding and application of risk assessments is essential when managing operational threats. These aspects can be addressed through the adoption of a professional attitude whereby vigilance, attention and focus are use to maintain effective situational awareness.

A pilot’s ability to prioritise tasks effectively may be directly affected by workload, the nature and number of threats, and the availability of resources. These issues can be addressed through an organisation’s management system.

Recommendations for Task-Sharing

The Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) highlights the use of a sterile flight deck/cockpit procedure as key to supporting pilots in performing only essential tasks during critical stages/phases of flight. In their Approach-and-Landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) Briefing Note 3.2 — Altitude Deviations the FSF makes the following recommendations, to enable optimum prioritisation of tasks and task-sharing:

  • Reduce non-essential tasks during climb and descent (some operators consider the final 1,000 feet before reaching an assigned altitude as a sterile-cockpit period);
  • Monitor/supervise the operation of the autopilot to confirm correct level-off at the cleared altitude and for compliance with altitude restrictions or time restrictions;
  • Plan tasks that preclude listening to ATC communications (e.g., Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS), company calls, public address announcements) for periods of infrequent ATC communication; and,
  • When one pilot does not monitor the ATC frequency while doing other duties (e.g., company calls) or when leaving the flight deck, the other pilot should:
    • Acknowledge receiving responsibility for ATC radio communication and aircraft control, as applicable;
    • Check that the radio volume is adequate to hear an ATC call;
    • Give increased attention to listening/confirming/reading back (because of the absence of crosschecking); and,
    • Brief the other pilot when he/she completes other duties or returns to the flight deck, and communicate relevant new information and any change in ATC clearances or instructions.

This list of recommendations is not comprehensive, but it highlights the importance of task sharing (CRM) as an important feature of crew activity on the flight deck, enabling pilots to focus attention on urgent tasks while not overlooking less pressing but equally important tasks.

Flight Deck Automation

Flight deck automation (and the associated automatic flight control and aircraft systems) has undoubtedly helped to reduce pilots’ workload. However, understanding, monitoring and managing flight deck automation take time and effort and in many cases they become priority tasks. The mantra ”Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” is used by pilots to highlight priorities in times of uncertainty. Usually “Aviate” required disengagement of all the automatics and for the pilot to fly by hand. In modern aircraft (none more so than the Airbus A380) pilots rely on the automatics to reduce their workload during periods of uncertainty, but they can spend time and effort trying to work out how to guarantee this, and what the limits of that control are. If, then, a pilot decides to disengage the auto-pilot, they may spend more time and effort fighting a silent opponent! Training is required for pilots to know when and how to prioritise manual inputs over automatic systems[1].

Human factors researchers are now focusing more attention on the pilot’s cognitive processing of flight-deck information and the pilot’s overall mental model of the information flow that occurs on the flight deck. With specific interest in the cognitive activities of categorisation and prioritisation. An experiment[2] investigated how pilots categorise and prioritise information typically available during flight. The results suggested three cognitive dimensions that pilots use in categorising flight-deck information. These dimensions included:

  • the flight function that the information is designed to support,
  • the strategic or tactical nature of the information, and
  • the frequency of information referral.

The results also suggested four specific high-level categories that pilots use in categorising and prioritising flight-deck information, including:

  • Aviation,
  • Navigation,
  • Communication, and
  • Systems Administration.

We can add to the prioritising of action and information (discussed already), the prioritising of attention, i.e. where pilots focus, particularly during periods of high workload or periods of uncertainty.

Periods of Low Workload

Effective prioritisation does not only relate to critical matters and/or periods of high workload. During periods of low workload, pilots can easily become distracted by non-essential tasks such as socialising, or become lethargic and unmotivated; both of which require a prioritisation of effort and attention to overcome. Again, flight deck automatics can assist the pilot in prioritisation through alarms, warning lights and display readouts.

Example Incident

Learjet 40, vicinity Stockholm, 2008. The aircraft deviated from the cleared altitude and descended below the minimum obstacle clearance altitude. The incident was caused by inappropriate prioritisation and allocation of the pilots’ workload.

The flight was being radar vectored and the co-pilot was pilot flying (PF) and was operating the aeroplane on autopilot according to heading, altitude and speed instructions from ATC. When a new heading, left 330 degrees, was confirmed, the PF selected the new heading on the autopilot panel. At the same time they were cleared for an ILS-approach, and the APPR-mode was selected on the autopilot panel. The aeroplane was apparently not commencing the turn to the new heading, but continued straight ahead. The pilots were at this moment also busy with checklist reading and other preparations for the imminent landing.

When the pilots realised that they were passing through the approach track, the pilot not flying (PNF) disconnected the autopilot and made a steep left turn to join the inbound track. The PNF’s take-over of the controls was not made by the use of standard phraseology. During the left turn towards the approach track, the aeroplane started an unintentional descent. There was no formally correct transfer of controls back to the PF. The ATC gave warnings and instructions to immediately turn to a heading of 270 degrees and commence a climb, which were confirmed by the pilots. Later the GPWS warning was triggered and the PNF regained control of the aeroplane by the phrase “I have it”, and commenced a go-around and a left turn. The height of antennas in the location are about 1370 feet (about 418 m) above sea level and the lowest altitude of the aeroplane was about 650 feet (about 200 m).

Related Articles

Further Reading


  1. ^ Flight Safety Foundation. 2005. Flight Deck Automation May Weaken Pilots’ Skills for Managing Systems Failures. Human Factors & Aviation Medicine: volume 52 number 2. Alexandria, Virginia.
  2. ^ Jonsson, J, E., & Ricks, W, R. 1995. Cognitive models of pilot categorisation and prioritisation of flight-deck information. NASA Technical Paper 3528. Hampton, Virginia.

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