Plane & Pilot
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Do You Have An Accident Personality?


Making sense of accident risks


accident personalityAre you a pilot who turns down the radio’s volume and does a straight-in at an uncontrolled airport when there are four other aircraft neatly spaced in the traffic pattern? Do you think your lungs are so good that you can cruise at 15,500 feet MSL without supplemental oxygen? Are you convinced that you’re experienced enough to avoid using checklists? If so, you may be displaying some of the characteristics that aviation psychology researchers suggest can increase the chances of an accident.
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accident personalityAre you a pilot who turns down the radio’s volume and does a straight-in at an uncontrolled airport when there are four other aircraft neatly spaced in the traffic pattern? Do you think your lungs are so good that you can cruise at 15,500 feet MSL without supplemental oxygen? Are you convinced that you’re experienced enough to avoid using checklists? If so, you may be displaying some of the characteristics that aviation psychology researchers suggest can increase the chances of an accident.

Ever since the early days of aviation, when the Civil Aeronautics Board (forerunner of the FAA) put in place the first rules and regulations to bring order to the barnstormers, federal regulators have been trying to identify and isolate those pilots who are destined to jeopardize public safety by causing accidents.

The Federal Aviation Regulations have evolved into a complex web within which all pilots are expected to function. In theory, if everyone does everything exactly as written and interpreted by the bureaucrats and FAA Administrator, public safety is assured. But this is the real world. The FAA recognizes that pilots, like all humans, have different personalities, behaviors and intelligence, attitude and skill levels. Research by the FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute and such institutions as Ohio State University and the University of Illinois is promoting an understanding of human factors in aviation, how those factors affect learning and decision making, and how they may be precursors to accidents.

Ohio State University has developed a risk-management tool for GA pilots that’s designed to help them evaluate their ability levels and develop personal guidelines. The idea is to preview each flight using a set of standards, which covers such areas as personal minimum cloud ceilings and minimum number of sleep hours the night before. Richard Jensen, Director of the Aviation Psychology Lab at Ohio State, notes that pilots in New York City or Los Angeles would need to develop personal criteria related to traffic considerations, while pilots in mountain areas would need to focus on terrain and wind-pattern issues. He also notes, “You can’t be a safe pilot unless you’re continuing to learn.”

Scott A. Shappell, of the FAA, and Douglas A. Wiegmann, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Institute of Aviation, proposed that unsafe acts by pilots can be loosely classified into two categories: errors and violations.

Errors are the mental or physical activities that fail to achieve the desired outcome. There are three basic types of errors: skill-based, decision-based and perceptual. In skill-based errors, two pilots may have the same training and same number of flight hours, yet possess vastly different skills. Pilot #1 may have trouble turning to headings and capturing altitudes, while pilot #2 can make any airplane soar like an eagle. Decision-based errors are a result of intentional behavior. Sometimes they’re excused as “honest mistakes,” while at other times they reflect a lack of basic knowledge. These errors can involve using wrong procedures, making a poor choice from known options, or incorrectly gathering information to evaluate a situation that’s new to the pilot. Perceptual errors are made because observations have been affected by illusions, spatial disorientation or preconceptions.

Violations constitute willful disregard for the rules, regulations and procedures that govern the safety of flight. Many in aviation believe that the FAA regulations are so complex and subject to interpretation that you can’t conduct any flight without violating some rule. An unsafe pilot believes that because you routinely violate some obscure FAR anyway, or are philosophically opposed to government regulation, you might as well ignore everything the FAA has promulgated. Flying while your medical certificate is in your wallet, which you left in the glove compartment of your car, is a violation, but not a safety issue. Flying in night/IFR conditions when you’re not instrument-rated is a violation and a very serious safety hazard. Even when there’s a safety issue, there’s an enormous difference between someone who deviates from a regulation or procedure because it’s expedient and someone who deviates because he or she resents authority.




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