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Introduction to Human Factors

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
General Aviation Human Factors, December, 2009
New Captain Series:   Becoming a Captain | Bag of Crap | The Model Captain | FOTA | Threat & Error Management Series | CRM Series | Safety Triangle | Fundamentals of CRM | Resolving Conflict | Workload Management | Checklist Usage | Briefings & Callouts | Training CRM | Threats to Safety | Error Management | Integrating Threat & Error Management | Sterile Cockpit | What are you doing over there? | General Aviation Human FactorsProfessionalism | FOTA

Aviation Human Factors is a broad field where boundaries between Aviation Psychology, Safety, and Systems melt into a distinct discipline of study and analysis.  At its core, Aviation Human Factors is concerned with Human Performance of pilots as they interact with others and with the aircraft under a variety of flight conditions, stress levels, and performance requirements. 

We’ve all heard the axiom that 80% of aircraft accidents are caused by pilot error.  Well actually, we mean human error.  Because it’s the human’s performance not only when things are going well, but also when a crewmember is experiencing stress, conflict, or degraded performance.  One stat I can guarantee is that 99%* of aircraft accidents involve one or more of those three elements.

Since we said that 80% of aircraft accidents are caused by human error, we need to dig into that a little bit.  Error is defined as the action, inaction, or decision of the pilot that leads to an undesired aircraft state (an incident or accident).  It’s our natural instinct to assign blame when something has gone unexpectedly.  Not all errors, however, are attributable to the pilot in command of an incident aircraft.  So let’s separate “error” from what caused accident by calling it a “finding”.

If we were to discuss “findings” for an aircraft accident, it might include things like:
  • Loss of directional control
  • Descent below the MDA  without having the runway in sight.
  • Exceeding the aircraft limitations
  • Failure to perform adequate preflight planning
  • Failure to maintain IFR proficiency
You will see these “findings” or accident causes are very different from the five kinds of error we’ll discuss:
  • 54% Intentional non-compliance with Policies & Regulations
  • 29% Procedural
  • 8% Communication
  • 6% Operational Decision
  • 5% Proficiency
Intentional non-compliance is so high due to intentional failure and inadvertent failure.  Intentional failure to follow policies, procedures and regulations is related to:
  • Mind traps
  • Get it done quick
  • Disregard for “silly” rules
  • Pressure (ridicule from peers or authority)
Inadvertent failure to follow policies, procedures and regulations is related to:
  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Attitude
  • Stress
Human error is inevitable and we often say, "to err is human."  CRM seeks to manage human error.  Pilot error occurs when:
  • Human performance is reduced
  • Expected performance is too high
Human Performance always suffers in these circumstances:
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Physiological degradation
  • Overload
  • Distractions
Performance falls below standards when:
  • Excessively high workload
  • Inadequate training
  • Unrealistic performance goals
The important element in any of the 5 types of error is finding techniques to resist error.  Eliminating or minimizing pilot error starts with:
  • Attitude - hazardous attitudes, I'M SAFE
  • Skills - On-going Training
  • Knowledge - Policy, regulations, SOP
  • Risk management
  • Appropriate mission planning & brief
  • Recognize the difference between unsafe & unwise
  • Saying "uncle" i.e. Go-around, reject, abort.
Over these pages, you’ll read about Crew Resource Management, Resisting Error, Threat & Error Management, and other Human Factors related to pilot performance. 

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