Attaining technical knowledge through training, and maintaining technical knowledge through continued awareness, further training and development, are essential elements in the competent conduct of any task, job or role. Attaining and maintaining technical knowledge also goes hand-in-hand with gaining and maintaining skills (physical, mental and interpersonal), and procedural knowledge. Each of these elements is facilitated by (framed by) experience, which provides relevant contextual knowledge (or understanding).
Within aviation, engineers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and cabin crew, have their technical knowledge routinely evaluated. On the one hand, technical knowledge is evaluated by exam (written and oral) to achieve qualifications and licences, and, on the other hand, technical knowledge is observed in practice when it is applied during simulated or real operations e.g. Line Oriented Flight Training. Inappropriate practical application of knowledge, or inadequate technical knowledge, during operations can introduce error.
Technical Knowledge Evaluation
Typically, training for engineers, pilots and air traffic controllers is provided in technical subjects to provide a broad grounding prior to skills training. Syllabi vary depending on type of licence and qualification, as well as the State in which the application is made. Below are some examples of technical subjects for which knowledge is expected; the lists are not exhaustive.
Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence (ATPL)
- Aircraft airframes, electrics, engines
- Principles of flight
- Flight Rules and Air Law
- Navigation (e.g. Navigation by Radio Aids)
- Communication and Communication Systems
- Flight Performance and Planning
- Human Factors (performance limitations)
Air Traffic Controller Licence
- Aviation law
- Air traffic management
- Communication, navigation and surveillance
- Aircraft and principles of flight
- Human Factors
- ATC equipment and systems
- Safety Management Systems and safety culture
- Linguistic knowledge, including radio-telephony phraseology.
Engineers and Technicians The specific technical knowledge required by aircraft engineers and technicians depends on the licence aimed for, or held, e.g. engine type, certifying responsibilities, and level A or B. Usually these also cover a broad-range of “general” subjects at the basic introduction level e.g. maths, physics, electronics etc.
Technical Knowledge Application
It is difficult to define levels of technical knowledge application by operators whilst on-the-job. Tasks are conducted and completed by the application of skills, and often these skills are directed by standard procedures.
Where “additional” technical knowledge is required, it must be correctly recalled and interpreted within the context of the given situation. This is vital when creating situational understanding of circumstances for which neither skills nor procedures have been learnt and/or practiced. This refers to novel situations and Rasmussen’s Skill-Rule-Knowledge Framework
When a novel situation (or combination of events) is encountered, and no procedure exists, the operator is required to recall similar events and apply technical knowledge in order to fully evaluate the situation and make a decision for action. Their competence at achieving a successful outcome can depend on the degree of technical knowledge learnt and recalled, available relevant skills and breadth of experience.
Technical Knowledge Errors
The recall of technical knowledge can be prone to recall errors. The original knowledge could have been taught or interpreted incorrectly, it may have “time-expired”, or it may be so infrequently used that memory is incomplete or impossible. Environmental and human factors may also hinder recall, such as distractions and mental stress.
A knowledge-based error can occur when planning and making decisions i.e. the selection of a wrong rule, procedure or technique, possibly based on incorrect analysis due to inadequate technical knowledge.
When executing a task, a lack of technical knowledge may lead an operator to react inappropriately to a situation, again due to incorrect analysis from incomplete or incorrect technical knowledge. Furthermore, the inability to recall appropriate technical knowledge can lead to an omission.
Knowledge of Complex Technology
As aviation technology has become more complex, especially aircraft automated systems, the pilot has become a servant of the computer, instead of the other way round. These complex technical systems have become less “transparent” to pilots, based on their complexity, wide capabilities, and the time restrictions placed on training and employing pilots: not least the need for pilots to learn, understand and apply a wide-range of other technical knowledge. This means that technical knowledge in some areas must necessarily be restricted i.e. fully understanding how the autopilot and flight management system “behaves” in all modes and laws under all situations. Therefore, as technology complexity and capability increases, new risks can be introduced where operators' technical knowledge does not keep pace.
- Flight Safety Foundation. 2005. Increased Reliance on Automation May Weaken Pilot’s Skills for managing System Failures. Human Factors & Aviation Medicine. Vol.52. No.2.