Modifying Human Behaviour; What Flight Training Can Learn From Psychotherapy

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Owen Sims, Type Rating Examiner, Flybe

Owen Sims obtained his commercial flying license at the Cabair College of Air Training in the UK, graduating top of his class in ground school and flight school. After spending a few months ferrying light aircraft around Greater London, he joined Flybe, Europe’s largest independent regional airline, which currently trains around 300 new pilots every year.

Having suffered an episode of severe depression some years ago, Owen developed an interest in psychology and psychotherapy; in particular, how these impacted on his role as an instructor. At Flybe he is an instructor and examiner as well as a CRM Trainer, and even flies planes occasionally! He spoke at the Asia Pacific Airline Training Symposium in 2016 on how the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy can be applied to flight training, has addressed the Human Factors Roundtable in Memphis, Tennessee, and spoke at EATS, both in 2017 on the application of mindfulness and last year on person-centered psychotherapy. He has a bachelors’ degree in philosophy and is working towards another in psychology.

Modifying Human Behaviour; What Flight Training Can Learn From Psychotherapy

The quality of an airline pilot’s operation is based partly on that individual’s technical ability, partly on his or her knowledge and partly – perhaps mostly – on the non-technical competencies which he or she possesses and displays. These last are of paramount importance because they are the means by which airline pilots control and manage their mental processes so that they can use their knowledge and their technical ability. This can create a challenge in flight training: we can teach and practice technical ability; we can impart knowledge; but how to train the non-technical competencies; that is, get pilots to do what they should and can do?

Given the knowledge and the ability, why would anyone not do what they’re supposed to – especially if it’s what they actually want to do? Most of the time, the answer will lie in a miss-managed emotional reaction. The key, then, to effective, non-technical training is the management of emotional reactions during training, and equipping pilots with their own emotional management tools for use every day. Fortunately for flight instructors, psychotherapists already use many techniques to do precisely that for their clients. 

Understanding the basics of some of these techniques of psychotherapy allows not only training efficacy to be enhanced but airline pilots continually to improve their own performance.