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The human operator, the least reliable element of an aerodyne, but the most essential...!
Frank Caron (1991)

Last update:
26 September 2016

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Human Factors - Useless too long briefings
What is happening during a briefing?
The working memory limitations
An Illusion...
Is it so important?

I would like to comment the way most of the airlines teach and perform briefings (taxi, departure, emergency, approach, etc.). I do not want to bring revolution, but just to give you another point of view through a scientific approach of what/how the pilot brain works during a briefing.


  1. By definition, Briefing means reporting whatever you want, usually before action.
    There are definitions relying to the prefix “brief”, supposing the briefing should be brief. But if there is a need to be brief, it does not come from the definition but from our cognitive/mental system characteristics.

  2. The operational goal of a briefing is to ease the use of the data we are going to use during whatever the phase of flight (for the example, let’s take a departure briefing). Some data will be systematically used (normal departure), some won’t necessarily (emergency). In other words, it allows sorting out the information we may need for a certain phase of flight.

  3. The cognitive/mental goal of a briefing is as important as the operational one.
    It prepares the transfer and the processing of the information required during the phase of flight. The point is that like an electric cable, a transfer has some limitations. If these limitations are exceeded, with too many information, our cognitive/mental may simply jam…

And it is a fact, most if not all briefings are well too much long, well above our cognitive/mental capacities. We describe, list, mention, assess and process so many information, up to a point our briefing becomes totally useless and more inefficient regarding the cognitive/mental goal, therefore the operational goal.

What is happening during a briefing?
We just pick up in our long term memory (where we use to find the required information), and we put these data in our working memory (where we store the information for the pending task).

The long term memory is where we have stored most of the information we previously learned in a pretty stable way (i.e.: if learned correctly) usually by repetitions of our actions. The most numerous repetitions the most stable information. The only few repetitions the least stable information memorized.

The most important tricky point regarding long term memory is its access time in real time situation. Seated on the ground processing the briefing is usually not a big deal, since no pressure, relaxed and plenty of time, the information comes easily. At 300 feet during departure, experiencing an engine fire will give a totally different picture. Here, the access from the long term memory may take up to some minutes in order to reach the information we need… even though we need it immediately.

Therefore, that is why briefing exists. In order to overcome this access delays, we transfer the information in the working memory.

Working memory depiction for a non experienced pilot

The above picture shows how the working memory may work with a simple departure clearance. Likewise a continuous recoding tape with 8 compartments, each single information is separately recorded in a single compartment. But in the working memory, the information is only considered as a sound, that has no really meaning from behavioral point of view....

As an example, "LFLC" in the previous clearance is made of separate sounds: LI-MA-FOX-LI-MA-CHAR-LI forming 7 sounds stored in 7 compartments. The total clearance requires 36 separate sounds, therefore 36 compartments. Thus the first 28 sounds will erased, keeping only the 8 lasts sounds.

However, this is a good depiction regarding non experienced pilots... With experience structuring the memories and the processes, some information are gathered together, but still as group of sounds. Therefore, the same clearance, for an experienced pilot, would appear as the following picture.

Working memory depiction for an experienced pilot

Thus, the previous 36 compartments requires here 5... But 2/3 of the compartments are used anyway, letting very few rooms for the remaining of a briefing...

The working memory limitations
But the working memory has its own limitations, as well:

  • The working memory has a limited space. Roughly, average human being may store between 5 and 7 pieces of information. Just very few a little more and few a little less…

    Considering the usual briefing pilots are taught to perform during their training, (usually fully described in the company SOP), we are well above the maximum pieces of information that can be stored in the working memory as seen on the first figure above. Since the first 7 pieces are stored, then the 8th erase the first, the 9th the 2nd, the 10th the 3rd, etc. Whatever you may do, only 7 pieces of information can be stored. With experience (again repetition) you may increase the quality or precision of the information, therefore increasing the number of information but not as much a briefing asks us to carry out. But in any way, the working memory may store more than 7 pieces of information.

    Just to provide some figures, the briefing described in SOPs usually contains roughly more than 40 items, without the TAXI and the departure plate… Thus, we have about 70 pieces of information, just 10 times above the working memory capacity. There is no way this may work…
  • The working memory is an extension of the short term memory. And as its name says, it is a short term memory. According to the studies, the information can remain a couple of minutes (average 90 seconds) in the short term memory.

    Some studies have shown some information may stay up to 15 minutes or for some 90 minutes, but the data given to the subjects are not really relevant to be compared to the type of operation we perform. I do not say the studies were not relevant, I just say it is difficult to compare the data used with our data used during our operations.

    Again, with experience (again repetition), we may increase a bit the time the information will remain stored in the working memory. But this required an automatic mental/cognitive repetition, which only works when our mental system is not too much used to execute important tasks (requiring high level of attention, like engine start, or taxi).

    I hope you understand that just with these two previous tasks, we lose the attention required to maintain our working memory up to date meaning much longer than the couple of minutes, and therefore running out for the next phase: take off.

    Moreover, according to the time we carry out our departure briefing, and when we will use the information, more than 15 minutes, we can seriously consider that most of the information will not be kept in this working memory.

    I am almost sure that a recollection exercise even with experienced pilots would provide very embarrassing results.

An illusion...
You may reply it seems to work, meaning our briefings are really useful. I would return the same words: it seems it works. But it is an illusion. Why, just because pilots always depart from their home base airport and have to come back.

Moreover, they are trained on this airport. This is a strong rate of repetition, according to the way our long term memory requirements for stable storage. So most of the information we use is pretty stable, and easily accessible from long term memory.

Moreover, the human being may be pretty good in analyzing his/her needs. That is why some captains (but also FOs) say the briefings are useless, even though they do not really know why. Just because they strongly feel they can access easily to every piece of information needed from their long term memory.

But again, in pressured situation where you need to retrieve essential information immediately, the long term memory is not going to be the right tool and the right place, just because it is not made for real time pressured/emergency situation(s).

Is it so important?
No and yes…

  • No, because (fortunately) most of our operations are normal. And we do not really need much of the briefing. Therefore why to perform such a briefing? Just in case...!

  • Yes, because when you will really need the information contained in the briefing you may be in big trouble, especially in airports we do not to fly as much... When new pilots (captains of FOs), fly to new airports you increase the risk information may not be accessed.

  • Yes, because it is a waste of time, and instead of performing such a lengthy and useless, it would be better to focus on what really matter for a departure from safety point of view.

  • Yes, because most (if not all) the information used during normal operations is stored in the FMC. Therefore, let’s focus on what is not in the FMC, and review carefully how we will use these information (a stiff paper sheet? with few data on the lower central MFD?)

  • Again, we are concerned here by non-normal operations or emergencies... Remember in most of the accidents/serious incidents, the CRM do not work, or is not used properly. In order to retain the useful information, briefings have to be shortening with the only essential information.

The point is to use an efficient and really safety objective briefing, not to abandon this safety practice. But instead of a litany of numerous items that would be lost in our memories before to be used, it would be more operational (from the mental system limitations point of view) to focus on the most important items (i.e.: company procedure for a specific runway in case of emergency).

Still regarding the working memory limitations, every briefing should have 10 items maximum. For those who does want to keep their current (long) briefings, why not split your briefing in different but shorter parts...?

Some hard liners would probably be reluctant to this new orientation. Let's consider the following points:

  1. Most nowadays airliners, if not all:
    1. use 2 FMCs,
    2. have 2 crew members,
    3. have departures/approach plates for each crew member.
  2. If one FMC fails, the other one is available;
  3. if both FMC fail, the pilot monitoring will assist the flying pilot...

But, it is important to carry out the long briefing during line training.

It is an opportunity to teach and train our pilot how to format a briefing, how to get structured and what to say… Just because the best way we train people especially during initial training, the best they will perform later on.

Again, it is not my intention to bring revolution, but increasing the safety of airlines operation with a different point of view (scientific human factor researches).

One may say, airlines are doing this for years now. But, airlines are not always right, and remember the first CRM training (one of the main big changes in aviation safety) needed more than 10 years to be implemented as a response to incomprehensible accidents/incidents which let the industry speechless for years...


Frank Caron, November 2007.

quick links

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Why training is the main solution to human factors issues

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Suggestions for a discipline committee

Too long briefings

Current CRM have reach its limits

Aviation safety international legal definitions

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