Tag: commercial pilots

Human factors assumptions, part 1

As I write this, the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 MAX accidents are still being investigated. While we know that the MCAS system is going to get the major share of the blame, there is also a push to change the way pilots are trained. One of the topics that has come up is one that was addressed in the movie Sully, the story of the USAirways dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, and that is some of the assumptions that go into aircraft and systems design.

Engineers—both hardware and software—creating a new design need to make some basic assumptions about pilot reaction time, knowledge, and experience. Reaction time delay is one of the most difficult things to predict. Modern aircraft are so dependable and so reliable that it’s easy to take them for granted. And that’s the problem: When something does go wrong, it’s critical that the time lag of a response be given adequate consideration. As Sully showed, when the crews in the sim knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and were allowed to respond immediately, they had no trouble getting the crippled A320 back to departure airport, especially when allowed to practice several times.

In reality, though, such events almost never go so smoothly—after all, who ever anticipates losing both engines to a flock of geese? Imagine dealing with the shock of some kind of a collision, followed by a marked change in the normal noise pattern of flight, and then the audible chimes and lights and other indications of an anomaly. Then, once that has begun to set in, the brain has to convince itself that what it is seeing or hearing is real.

Media reports indicate  this happened with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crews. Additionally, it involved a system that the crew of the Lion Air flight was totally unaware of, and the crew of the Ethiopian Air flight was only marginally aware of. The noise of the stick shaker—which is extremely loud and distracting in the 737 by design—combined with the realization that the airplane was descending and trimming itself nose down must have been overwhelming. In both incidents, there was surely a realization at some point that the crew was unable to overcome the airloads in order to reverse the trim.

It’s one thing for designers to try to anticipate crew responses during the early phases of flight. But they also need to look at human factors from several angles, including crews that might be in the middle of a longer flight on the back side of the clock, such as a red-eye or a transcon. The effects of fatigue on sensory response need to be accounted for, which is another reason that some warnings are designed to be loud and attention-getting.

The type of fatigue matters too. Is the crew tired because it’s the last leg of a six-leg day, or is it because they are flying in the middle of the night? Crew experience also needs to taken into account. An experienced, well-trained crew is going to have a better response under virtually any circumstance, and there is reason to believe that at least one of the pilots involved in the Ethiopian Air crash may have been extremely low on the experience meter. Throw in a similar situation with fatigue or personal stress, and such an individual could easily be overwhelmed. It might impossible to account for every possibility, but realistic common denominators need to be established.

Manufacturers do what they can to test their theories and assumptions in the simulators, but there are limits to the effectiveness. Every pilot knows that during a sim flight, something will go wrong. They may not know what, or when, or where or how, but they are primed for a surprise, so even the surprise isn’t a total surprise. Further, when you know that you’re in a box, you know that you’re eventually walking away. That means that the effect of full-blown fear and panic is almost impossible to test for or measure.

There has already been much discussion about human factors assumptions moving forward as result of these accidents, and it’s a discussion that will go on for some time. Checklists and procedures are already being retested, rewritten, and studied. Pilots have complained for years that inexperienced cockpit inhabitants—usually first officers—are unable to cope with a sensory onslaught of often conflicting information. These accidents seem to bring some evidentiary data to that argument, though we must wait for the final reports to be written.

What we do know is that 346 people were killed in very preventable accidents, and the laws are written in blood. Changes will be coming.—Chip Wright

Be reasonable

This piece of advice no doubt applies to just about any line of work, and it isn’t limited to pilots. That said, it bears repeating.

It isn’t uncommon for pilots to have to spend money out of their own wallets for certain work-related expenses. Cabs, crew meals, and hotels fall into this category, and at some airlines, even the fuel bill can initially become the pilot’s responsibility.

Most folks will use an element of common sense in these situations. Hotels usually become an issue at the last minute when a crew has to deal with an unexpected diversion or the company hotel clerk(s) make a (monumental) mistake. Crew meals can become an issue under the diversion scenario or on holidays. The question becomes how much to spend.

It’s one thing to be stuck in a Smallville, USA-kind of place with no typical hotel rooms, and find yourself forced to take a cab to high-end Hilton or Marriott in order to get your crew (or even just yourself) some sleep. What will likely raise eyebrows will be booking your crew into the Ritz or the Waldorf-Astoria. Rest (pun very much intended) assured, this has happened. These events usually have a reasonable and even humorous backstory, and it usually comes as a result of a pilot trying to make a point about a series of issues.

But such a strategy isn’t always wise or wallet-friendly. The best bet is to find a reasonable accommodation at a hotel similar to what your company provides, and if the price is higher than normal because of local demand, so be it. But buying rooms at a thousand bucks a pop is a risk.

Meals create similar opportunities for abuse. A pilot at a major airline that provides crew meals to its crews was entitled to put in a reimbursement for a meal that didn’t get boarded. Mistakes like this don’t happen often, but they do occur. The intent in this case was for the pilot to get a meal as soon as practical for a reasonable price. What was not intended was to try and get away with expensing a meal for four in excess of a hundred bucks at Disney World (yes, this actually happened).

When you exceed any normal sense of reasonable behavior, the end result is that the rules are changed and made more punitive for everyone else. Don’t be that person.—Chip Wright