While Ergonomic Answers are developed, Interim Tactics to deal with Instrument Watching should be Implemented

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ARTICLE: Monitoring Cockpit Systems Not Easy for Pilots

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The study of ergonomics made a significant contribution in the transition from a three person to a two pilot cockpit. The design and configuration of instrument display justified the removal of the engineer.

Now the number and importance of these instruments have called into question the capacity of the humans to identify and react to relevant, significant readings on these information displays. These recent academic studies have approached this issue from different disciplines and technologies. The FAA commissioned a study of the literature, completed a study on the interaction between pilots and traffic alerts, distributed a paper warning that the pilot/machine interface are non-intuitive and initiated a working group on cockpit ergonomics.

The literature and the regulatory rules have not established an absolute standard or an answer to the problem. In the interim, it is incumbent on the pilot community to be aware of the issues on both a general and individual level.

Attention to detail is an attribute which varies among human beings’ DNA and among individuals’ performances over time. Some pilots are endowed with an ability to maintain focus on the spectrum of instruments invariably during long flights; others tend to lose their ability to scan the array even during short operations.

Those are strengths and weaknesses about which each crewmember ought to be made aware. Equally, when the pilot-in-command and the second officer are introduced, they should acknowledge their ability or lessened talent to capture the data displayed on those dials and discuss their team approach for the flight(s) to be managed.

Mental acuity has a high correlation with the fatigue status of the pilots. If the professional arrives at the first duty station after a long, restful sleep, her/his ability to maintain focus likely will be high. If, on the other hand, a crew member is fatigued and/or distracted, she/he may not be as proficient at performing in the cockpit. There are instances in which such a depleted state should cause the individual to acknowledge that, for whatever reasons, she/he is not fit for duty. Further, there are many gradations in mental preparedness; each degree along that continuum should dictate different approaches as to both the individual pilot and the cockpit crew.

The FAA, ALPA and Airline Flight Operations managements should take affirmative actions as to cockpit ergonomics while science and regulations sort out the definitive, long term response. First and foremost, all involved must be exposed to the issue; papers should be prepared for and shared with the pilot population. Training programs which help identify those who are strong or weak at attention to detail.

That instruction should include strategies to communicate the relative abilities and current state of the individuals as each trip begins. There should be no stigma attached to one’s relative weakness at focusing on the instruments; the behavior to be reinforced is that full disclosure.

While long term answers are developed, such interim tactics must be developed and implemented.

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