Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Monitoring What’s Going On


Managing pilot workload



DEALING WITH DISTRACTIONS. Activities unrelated to the flight contributed to the 2009 incident involving a Northwest A320 (like the one above) in which the flight overflew its destination.
Individuals who have passed their FAA written exams and practical tests don’t necessarily have the knowledge and skills to become trustworthy pilots. The NTSB reviews pilot training, particularly in major incidents, and sometimes finds that accident pilots have needed several attempts to pass the checkride. Investigators may learn that a person was lax in adhering to procedures and checklists, or had trouble multitasking. Evidence may indicate that although a pilot held advanced ratings, he or she performed more like an amateur than a disciplined professional.

The investigation into the Colgan Air accident, near Buffalo, N.Y., has spurred the NTSB to focus on ensuring professional discipline in pilots who hold advanced ratings and fly in air carrier crews. The Safety Board issued a safety recommendation to the FAA, pointing to failure on the part of the ATP-rated captain and commercial-rated first officer to properly monitor what was happening and pick up obvious information from the cockpit displays. The NTSB said the pilots failed to monitor the airplane’s pitch attitude, power and, especially, its airspeed.

In 1994, the NTSB studied 37 major accidents; it found that in 31 instances, the pilots hadn’t done an adequate job of monitoring or cross-checking. Pilots frequently failed to recognize and effectively draw attention to critical cues that led to the accident sequence. At the time of the study, the NTSB told the FAA that there was a need for enhanced training in pilot monitoring skills. After finding that a Cessna Citation crash in Pueblo, Colo., involved failure to properly monitor airspeed, the Safety Board asked the FAA to go one step further and mandate that pilots receive training emphasizing monitoring skills and workload management.

During public hearing testimony in the Colgan Air investigation, Dr. Robert Key Dismukes of NASA’s Ames Research Center reported that people have limited attention and must select where in their environment to direct attention. Distractions and interruptions can increase workload and redirect attention, thus complicating the monitoring task. As a result, effective monitoring requires an active effort to seek information and ask questions. The NASA scientist testified that current training programs may tell pilots to be vigilant, but they don’t provide explicit techniques.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of failure to monitor what’s happening with an airplane occurred on Northwest Airlines Flight 188 on October 21, 2009. The Airbus A320 was out of contact with ATC for about one hour and 16 minutes. It flew past its intended destination, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, at its cruise altitude of FL370 with two pilots, three flight attendants and 144 passengers.



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