Researcher and commercial pilot applies psychology to flight training practices
Air transport is indispensable in the modern world — from international travel to the delivery of essential goods and services. As the industry continues to expand, aircraft are becoming more complex. In turn, the demand for highly skilled pilots with specialized training is also growing.
Samuel Clement-Coulson (BA 18) divides his time between his master’s research in psychology at Concordia and working as a commercial pilot. He hopes to integrate these two realms in order to develop improved flight training materials that match the needs of today’s aerospace landscape.
I want to make flight training more efficient, challenging and enjoyable
How do these specific images relate to your research at Concordia?
Samuel Clement-Coulson: These pictures show an air ambulance used for connecting remote Canadian communities with lifesaving medical care. Airplanes are becoming increasingly complex in order to fulfill the needs of every mission. Additionally, the large increase in airline pilot jobs leaves smaller operators hiring less experienced pilots. But these operators are often serving remote communities and companies with highly specific mission profiles.
Pilot training must evolve to prepare future generations of pilots for each flight they take. My research contributes by integrating psychological science with industry requirements in order to develop tools to help instructor pilots deliver the best training possible.
What is the hoped-for result of your project?
SCC: Aviation has always been a catalyst for applying research in a practical environment. There is a large disconnect between scientists today and decision makers in the aviation industry. During the mid-20th century, flight training became an increasingly methodical process — lesson plans and instruction techniques developed then remain important to this day.
In parallel, the second half of the 20th century saw psychological science increase our understanding of learning processes, especially when related to expertise. Today, we expect consistently high levels of performance from professionals, especially in aviation, where small mistakes can be dangerous.
My research aims to tie these two together by applying psychological science to improve flight crew training programs. Developing evidence-based tools to personalize training will help us improve flight crew performance, making training much more efficient, challenging and enjoyable.
What impact could you see it having on people’s lives?
SCC: Flight has become essential to most of what we do in our day-to-day lives. Whether it’s about ensuring your online purchase makes it to you in a few days or connecting remote communities with urgent medical care, flight crews around the world guide their aircraft through open skies to make it happen.
However, there is a forecasted shortage of competent pilots around the world. Future generations of aviators will be flying high-performance, complex aircraft with much less experience than did previous generations. My research aims to tie in with the aviation industry’s efforts to meet this demand for pilot training while maintaining a high standard of safety and performance.
What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?
SCC: It’s having to keep up to date both as a scientist and a commercial pilot — although it’s also my favourite part of the job! My research is at the intersection of aviation and psychology, which means I have to be competent in both fields.
I’ve had some days where I have a flight in the morning and research in the afternoon. When I’m in the airplane, I’m focused on being part of a flight crew working toward a specific mission. Sometimes, I’ve got nothing but a short drive between the airport and Loyola Campus to get back into a scientist’s mindset. It really teaches you to be flexible in the way you work.
What first inspired you to study this subject?
SCC: I’ve always been passionate about flying. I still remember the days flying around in a float plane with my father when I was younger. While in the aviation program at CEGEP de Chicoutimi, I spent my summers teaching air cadets to fly airplanes. It was there that I began appreciating the human factors of flying.
The fact that we can teach someone to fly a small airplane in 45 hours, the same time as an undergraduate course, was fascinating. Those teaching experiences brought questions such as, “What constitutes an expert pilot?” “How do we train one?” These are the foundation for my research today.
What advice would you give interested STEM students to get involved in this line of research?
SCC: It’s never too late to get into research; I never thought it would be my path. My first exposure was during an exchange program when I attended the City University of Hong Kong. I created a research program on flight crew fatigue involving airlines from around the world.
Back in Montreal, help from Aaron Johnson and my colleagues in the Concordia Vision Labs quickly got me to running my own project in the last year of my undergraduate degree.
Don’t hesitate to talk with your professors about your goals! When I got back from Hong Kong, I knew I wanted to study human factors in aviation. But there was very little research done on this topic in Montreal, despite it being a global capital for aviation. I asked one of my professors for guidance, who quickly referred me to my current supervisor. With his help, we have now started an exciting, innovative research program open to colleagues across the industry.
What do you like best about being at Concordia?
SCC: My colleagues in the MA in psychology program have such diverse backgrounds and objectives. It’s easy to find others when you want to discuss ideas — and for the odd procrastination coffee break. With such diverse areas of research, we can collaborate with other departments or disciplines to maximize the impact of our research.
For example, we collaborate with Catharine Marsden’s NSERC Chair in Aerospace Design Engineering lab in order to apply our human factors research methods to improve the way airplane cockpits are designed. It’s taught me a lot about the engineering design process while enabling me to share our research methods with another discipline.
Additionally, I love how quickly Concordia embraced this unconventional idea for research. The university has supported it through equipment and mentoring from colleagues and faculty. We now have a flight simulator readily available in-house for many projects. Concordia offers me the flexibility I need to combine graduate school with commercial flying.
Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?
SCC: We collaborate with local airlines, flight schools and government agencies during various phases of research. This support often takes different forms, such as expertise or specialized equipment, depending on each project’s needs. I’ve received internal funding from Concordia through programs such as the Merit Scholarship.
Additionally, our work with the NCADE lab investigating differences in workload between single-pilot and two-pilot flying operations was supported by the NSERC Chair in Aerospace Design Engineering grant.
Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Psychology.