Pilot Journal
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Human Factors In Light Jet Aircraft


Are your mind and body ready?


human factorsThe schedule was tight. Following a day on the slopes and an evening watching the Super Bowl, the pilot was a bit tired, but still had to contend with a 45-minute drive to the airport, a snowy instrument departure and a night flight to North Las Vegas Airport. He landed at VGT after the tower had closed and arrived at the hotel around 1 a.m. No rest for the wicked, however, as wake-up calls jolted him from bed in time for 7:30 meetings and a full day of walking through exhibit hall aisles. Then, after dinner at 6:30 p.m., he flew home, touching down on home turf at 3 a.m.
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human factors
The lack of sleep, lack of proper diet and onset of mental fatigue is a setup for mistakes. Even little mistakes at 300 knots and 30,000 feet can add up to big trouble.
Before a flight, ask yourself if you feel well. Do you have pain that may be distracting or a symptom of something more serious? Did you just have a fight with your spouse that will distract you from focusing on flying? (For example, stress factors were involved in the John Kennedy Jr. accident.) When you’re flying high and fast, these issues might not be important until there’s a problem. Then a cascade of little problems become a big problem. Always be prepared for any flight eventuality, physically and psychologically. Even the most experienced pilots will make mistakes when presented with a novel problem at an unexpected time. Don’t let physical or mental issues add to that cascade.

And don’t fall prey to the “I’ll take care of it when I get there” attitude. Is indigestion causing that discomfort in your chest or could it be something else? Although having an FAA medical in your pocket might make you legal, it doesn’t automatically make you safe. I recommend a comprehensive physical exam at least every three years (and a nuclear stress test every five years for patients over 50). With a negative stress test result, there’s less than one half of 1% chance of a cardiac problem in the next five years. The only thing worse than having a cardiac problem is flying the flight levels not knowing you have a cardiac problem.

human factorsAssessing passengers for flight in a light jet is no different from assessing pilot preparedness. Although they’re not controlling the aircraft, no one needs an in-flight event to turn into a medical emergency or safety problem. Are the passengers anxious? Will they be allowed to smoke? Are they in good health? Do you have a portable oxygen bottle for emergency use? Is it reasonable to carry an automatic external defibrillator in the aircraft?

Even simple passenger issues like not having baby wipes for infants or airtight bags for dirty diapers can be a huge distraction in a small, pressurized cabin. Is there an adult who can supervise children in the back? There’s nothing more distracting than a couple of middle schoolers yakking during an instrument approach. Also, don’t forget about adjusting pressurization rates to prevent pain from barotraumas in the younger ones’ ears. That screaming can really cause the ILS crosshairs to go haywire!

Even basic issues like food and water accessibility need to be considered. And with a single pilot, are food and water within easy reach? This is another part of good preflight planning.

Ultimately, all pilots should have a plan for potential in-flight human factor issues. What airports are available for diversion? How can ATC help? If necessary, ask for priority handling or declare an emergency early. It’s not as much paperwork as common myth would have it, and anyway, paperwork really shouldn’t be a deterrent to declaring an emergency in a timely fashion.

Other medical resources are available via your radio or in-flight telephone. MedAire (www.medaire.com) is a subscription service, while Dial-a-Doc (www.dial-a-doc.com) puts you in contact with a board-certified physician in 90 seconds, 24/7.

human factorsI’ve long been a proponent of having a finger-tip pulse oximeter (www.flightstat.nonin.com) in the cabin for assessing oxygen levels in pilots and passengers. You should also keep a medical kit with common drugs in your light jet. Emergency drugs can be added to these kits as you deem necessary for your typical passenger load.

Most importantly, just because your new light jet can make a trip doesn’t mean it should make the trip. Pilots must also be prepared, mentally and physically, for the trip.

For articles on dealing with distraction, maintaining flight safety and other related topics, visit www.pilotjournal.com/proficiency.html.

Dr. Brent Blue is a Senior Aviation Medical Examiner who owns Aeromedix.com, a provider of GA medical and safety equipment. He was the team doctor for the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team at the World Competition in Hungary. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



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