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Are Simulators the Answer To Skill Degradation Problems?


Simulators are often seen as the answer to the skill degradation problem being encountered by many process plants. The aerospace model is cited as evidence that simulators are essential. What is often overlooked is the learning curve that the aerospace industry underwent with regard to the use and role of simulators.

Consider the following sentiment on aerospace simulation. “I would not consider the money being spent on flight simulators as staggering if we knew much about their training value, which we do not. We build flight simulators as realistic as possible, which is consistent with the identical elements theory of transfer of Thorndike, but the approach is also a cover up for our ignorance about transfer because in our doubts we have made costly devices as realistic as we can in the hopes of gaining as much transfer as we can. In these affluent times, the users have been willing to pay the price, but the result has been an avoidance of the more challenging questions of how the transfer might be accomplished in other ways, or whether all the complexity is really necessary.” – Adams, 1972.

The above quote is used in Paul Caro’s seminal 1973 article “Aircraft Simulator and Pilot Training” and could be applied in many process industries. As Caro points out, the Air Force has evolved in the use of simulators from that described by Adams to their place as a part of a performance based training program. This includes Air Force’s use and findings that training with paper mock-ups of aircraft cockpits (a very low fidelity simulator) can significantly improve skills in the actual cockpit 1 . Are simulators the answer to skill degradation problems? They are likely part of the answer, but how and to what extent is still not known. And that is the “challenging question.”

1 “Aircraft simulators and Pilot training”, Caro, P.W., Readings in Training and Simulation: A 30-year Perspective. Swezey, R. and Andrews, D. (eds). Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Santa Monica, CA, 2001, p225-232.

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