“Cognitive lockup” in aviation – what causes it and how it can be detrimental

Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was a scheduled flight from New York JFK to Miami. The flight was routine until the plane began its approach to Miami International Airport. Shortly before midnight on December 29, 1972, the Lockheed L-1011-1 Tristar crashed into the Florida Everglades, causing 101 fatalities-only 75 survived.

Eastern Airline Lockheed L-1011 Tristar | Representative | Wikipedia

According to the final investigation report released by the NTSB, “the failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final four minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground” was determined to be the probable cause of the crash.

Reportedly, during the turn of events, the flight crew failed to recognize the deactivation of the autopilot. Following a missed approach, because of a suspected nose gear malfunction, the aircraft climbed to 2,000ft MSL and proceeded on a westerly heading.

After the aircraft had descended 250 feet from the selected altitude of 2,000 feet, a C-chord sounded from the rear speaker. This altitude alert, designed to warn the pilots of an inadvertent deviation from the selected altitude, went unnoticed by the crew.


Flying over the darkened terrain of the Everglades, coupled with night-time flying conditions, made it impossible for the crew to realize the Tristar was actually descending.

Following this and many other accidents in the 1970s, many airlines started crew resource management training (CRM) for their pilots.

Cognitive Lockup

Cognitive skills are defined as brain-based skills needed in the acquisition of knowledge, manipulation of information and reasoning.

Representative | 2SER

The relation between planning and acting is key for cognitive science, as well as an important aspect of human-computer interaction. Cognitive psychology establishes the fact that sequences of actions are organised hierarchically by a mental planning process.

How does this play a role in aviation?

Human errors are an inevitable part of the action, something which we all are susceptible to. They become more significant when it occurs in high-performance environments like aviation, where the stakes are even higher. Thereby, it becomes crucial to understand why human errors in aviation are made and
how they can be mitigated.

Human Errors and Human Differences in Aviation | Representative | dentalimplantsurgery.com


“Cognitive Lockup”, as defined by Moray and Rotenberg(1989), refers to the tendency of operators to deal with disturbances sequentially (regardless of the severity). In other words, you could be holding on to a specific task when other, more severe issues, could be attended to first. The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, is a prime example of this.

What do the statistics say?

According to figures, 48% of fatal accidents and onboard fatalities, between 1959 and 2016 (Boeing, 2017), occurred during the final approach and landing.

Approximately 65% of all accidents take place during critical phase(s) of flight- take-off/landing
| Representative | 123RF

IATA publication data from 2011-2015 shows that approximately 65% of all recorded accidents occurred in the approach and landing phase of the flight, and unstabilised approaches were identified as a factor in 14% of these approach and landing accidents.

Representative | ISASI.org
Representative | ISASI.org

Probable causes of cognitive lockup

According to Goleman (1995), when the brain receives information, stimulus travels to
two places in the brain from the thalamus: the amygdala and the neocortex. The neocortex represents the thinking part of the brain, while the amygdala processes physiological responses and fight or
flight information.

Representative | District 105

If the emotional brain does not like what it is seeing, it will declare an emotional emergency, an amygdala hijack. Most individuals can only be effective when both the emotional and thinking brain work together.

Goleman, 1998
Representative | Supari.In

When people switch between tasks, the mental reconfiguration to another task takes time- also called the “switching cost”. Cognitive lockup is reduced when it is obvious that the benefits of a switch exceed the switching cost. This goes to show that the decision to switch or not to switch may be influenced by a misperception of the expected benefits.

Furthermore, if an individual feels that the ongoing task is almost complete, they are more likely to stick to the ongoing task even if the new task is comparatively more significant.

Typically, there are two types of pressure on pilots:

  • Time pressure
  • Task pressure

Time pressure, being a function of the number of tasks to be performed in a given period, becomes high when there is a perception that time might be scarce.

People experience time pressure when 70% or more of the available time is required for the task

Beevis 1999

The primary task of pilots is getting the passengers from point A to point B. Understandably, they are focused more on completing the task within the stipulated time frame and additional manoeuvres like a go-around or a diversion, although critical from a safety standpoint, may sometimes be overlooked by the crew- Task pressure being a case in point.

Representative | The Independent

People have the tendency to stick to their current task when 90% or more of their total stages of a task have been completed

Boehne and Pease, 2000; Garland and Colon, 1993

Thereby, it can be safely said that there is an interaction effect between task completion and time pressure on cognitive lockup.

How does this translate to aviation?

The effects of cognitive lockup are more profound when a pilot approaches the destination. The pilot by now has effectively invested a lot of time in almost completing the task of reaching the destination. In such instances, the pilot might continue with landing, despite, let’s say-encountering an unstable approach on landing. Performing a go-around could be perceived in a negative light and hence the pilot might stick to the first task- landing on time at the destination.

An aircraft on final approach | Representative | Wikipedia

Cognitive lockout is the primary reason for the reluctance to go around.

Possible solution(s)

Appropriate training can have a profound effect on reducing cognitive lockup by increasing the practice of “task switching”, as compared to other tasks.

Representative | TU Delta- TU Delft

Additionally, the following could be implemented:

  • Decision support tools:  Tools that assist pilots in recognising the relative priorities of tasks, thereby reducing the likelihood of cognitive lockup
  • Simulator training: Pilots could be trained in scenarios where new, more urgent, tasks arise when dealing with an existing task and could reinforce awareness of the need to continuously assess and prioritise tasks.


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