Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Risky Business

Little-known tools that can help make your next flight safer

Human Factors
I recently attended a two-day ground school. The class instructor, Kim Barnes, was filling in for the regular instructor. Barnes also happens to be the Assistant Chief Flight Instructor for Aviation Seminars, as well as the Director of Training at Avjet Boeing Business Jet. He's also a former USAF instructor and fighter pilot, and continues to be a flight instructor by choice. To say he's passionate about flight instructing is an understatement. During a break, our conversation delved into GA accidents and Barnes' commitment to educating pilots about risk through the study of "human factors."

In the aviation world, the human factors concept is a deep examination of how pilots interact with their aircraft and environment. The study of human factors in aviation is nothing new, having been around since the Wright brothers began patenting control devices to help pilots fly more easily.
More than just a buzzword, risk assessment studies have yielded some useful, intuitive rules for pilots. The challenge has been getting pilots to pay attention to these ideas, especially within a culture of denial about the safety of aviation.
The discipline kicked into high gear after the famous Eastern Airlines crash in Miami in 1972, when a new L-1011, its passengers and highly experienced crew, crashed into the Everglades because of a burned out .20-cent lightbulb. Later, as the Space Shuttle was under development, human factors were carefully studied for the purpose of creating safer spaceflight crews. Those studies gave rise to CRM—known today as, "crew resource management."

Not another boring FAA-conceived program to feed its bureaucratic appetite, human factors is one of the hottest topics at FIRCs across the nation. It's being addressed not only by the FAA and aviation speakers, like John King and Rod Machado, but by huge organizations like the ICAO.

The Problem
In 2011, (the most recent year we have full statistics for), the NTSB reported 1,466 general aviation accidents. Of those, 263 were fatal, where 444 people lost their lives. Barnes showed me a shocking statistic: "From 1991 to 2000, in 91% of the student-pilot stall-spin accidents, an instructor was on board the airplane! There is something wrong there." The question of how such accidents happen lead to more than just the stall-spin itself.

As Barnes explains, the NTSB too often stops once a base cause for an accident is found. For example, if an engine is found faulty during a crash investigation, that accident is put into a "Mechanical Failure" causal factor. But that doesn't take into account the human factors that played a bigger role in the accident.


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