Pilot age and expertise predict flight simulator performance: A 3-year longitudinal study

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Abstract

Background:

Expert knowledge may compensate for age-related declines in basic cognitive and sensory-motor abilities in some skill domains. We investigated the influence of age and aviation expertise (indexed by Federal Aviation Administration pilot ratings) on longitudinal flight simulator performance.

Methods:

Over a 3-year period, 118 general aviation pilots aged 40 to 69 years were tested annually, in which their flight performance was scored in terms of 1) executing air-traffic controller communications; 2) traffic avoidance; 3) scanning cockpit instruments; 4) executing an approach to landing; and 5) a flight summary score.

Results:

More expert pilots had better flight summary scores at baseline and showed less decline over time. Secondary analyses revealed that expertise effects were most evident in the accuracy of executing aviation communications, the measure on which performance declined most sharply over time. Regarding age, even though older pilots initially performed worse than younger pilots, over time older pilots showed less decline in flight summary scores than younger pilots. Secondary analyses revealed that the oldest pilots did well over time because their traffic avoidance performance improved more vs younger pilots.

Conclusions:

These longitudinal findings support previous cross-sectional studies in aviation as well as non-aviation domains, which demonstrated the advantageous effect of prior experience and specialized expertise on older adults' skilled cognitive performances.

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