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Psychological Science in Aviation and Space

Earlier this month, as Congress began consideration of the President's FY08 budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Science Government Relations staff attended a two-day aviation human factors conference in San Antonio, Texas.

By Elizabeth Hoffman

Earlier this month, as Congress began consideration of the President's FY08 budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Science Government Relations staff attended a two-day aviation human factors conference in San Antonio, Texas. The purpose of the conference was to build bridges between the human factors/sciences research communities, and aerospace educators and flight operations departments and organizations. Representing aerospace science and industry, presenters highlighted strategies to reduce vulnerability to aviation accidents. Morning Star Aviation Safety, LLC sponsored the event, and Captain David Blair, Morning Star's Founder, is already gearing up for the second annual meeting in 2008.

You may wonder what airplane accidents have to do with psychological science. Human error, it turns out, may be involved in as much as 60% - 80% of all aviation accidents, and scientists have turned to cognitive psychology - error detection, working memory capacity, and shifting attention, for example - to understand human performance limitations in flight. Society's demand for reliability, especially in aviation, is nearly unlimited. The volume of airline flight operations is growing and is projected to be much higher within the next decade. Even if current accident rates are maintained, this growth will entail more fatal accidents each year, and with increasing use of large airliners the death toll from a single accident can be very large. Thus, it is crucial to understand the factors that make skilled pilots, controllers, dispatchers, and mechanics vulnerable to error, to develop ways to reduce vulnerability to error, and to defuse errors to prevent them leading to accidents. Cockpit operations are becoming increasingly automated, and the FAA plans a next generation of air traffic control that will be vastly more automated than the current one. But the history of automation (and other technology) is that it can either enhance system performance or undercut the performance of human operators (as occurred at Three Mile Island), depending on how well the automation is designed to match human operating characteristics.

Conference participants Dr. Terry Allard, Program Director for Human Factors Research and Engineering at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Dr. Judith Orasanu, Research Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, discussed sources of capacity limitations in flight, such as air traffic control workload, stress, flight deck design/procedures, and inadequate shared mental models ("team cognition") between pilots and first officers. In his presentation concerning the limits of expertise, Dr. Key Dismukes, also from Ames, and author of The Limits of Expertise: Rethinking Pilot Error and the Causes of Airline Accidents, discussed the challenge of managing concurrent tasks, the inherent cognitive limitations in switching attention, and the vulnerability to prospective memory errors when individuals are interrupted, required to defer intended actions, or required to perform habitual actions out of the normal sequence. In these situations even the most skilled of pilots are vulnerable to forgetting to perform intended actions, even if those actions are highly practiced.

Most of these cognitive limitations create small bumps in our normal day-to-day activities and, one may argue, simply reveal our humanness. But in aviation and space flight, medicine, and many other work domains, errors associated with these limitations sometimes have fatal consequences.

Dismukes discussed two of the most important safeguards the airlines use to prevent and catch errors: checklists and monitoring. Monitoring refers to requiring each pilot to carefully check the actions of the other pilot and to keep track of the status of the aircraft's automation, configuration, and flight path. Although these two safeguards save many lives every year, they sometimes break down, for much the same reasons that humans are vulnerable to prospective memory errors. Dismukes and his colleague Ben Berman are collaborating with airlines to observe flight operations in the cockpit and to develop ways to increase the reliability of checklists and monitoring.

Aeronautics research (including human factors) has long been a cornerstone of NASA (Aeronautics is the first A in the acronym), and universities have depended on NASA funding as the primary source of funding in this domain. But the agency's Aeronautics program, administered by Dr. Lisa Porter, is being restructured to meet President Bush's focus on space exploration, and the President's proposed FY08 budget diminishes the spending power of the aeronautics program by over 40% since 2004. Further, the Aeronautics program has been re-oriented to emphasize disciplines such as aerodynamics over human performance and operational issues. These cuts have already forced NASA centers to substantially cut jobs and university grants in aeronautics research, especially in the area of human performance.

The Administration has undertaken an extremely expensive program to send humans to the Moon and then on to Mars, but without increasing NASA's budget; consequently the agency's research programs are suffering. (Not just human performance research; earth observation research is also declining.) As Congress considers the President's FY08 budget proposal for NASA, APA Science Government Relations will continue to lobby Appropriations staff in both chambers for greater investment in aeronautics research, especially research on human performance issues.