How to Optimize Human Performance on Flight Decks

In a world of automated systems aboard the business jet flight deck, why is human performance still such an important factor, and how can flight crews work towards improving their own performance? Mario Pierobon speaks with Antonio De Marchi, a Senior CRM Trainer…

Mario Pierobon  |  16th August 2021
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    Mario Pierobon
    Mario Pierobon

    Mario Pierobon holds a Master’s Degree in Air Transportation Management from City University London,...

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    Runway lights surround a private jet at sunset

    Human performance provides a significant contribution to maintaining or improving safety in Business Aviation operations. For example, pilots may plan ahead for threats and errors, or provide solutions to these by deploying abnormal and emergency procedures when necessary.

    However, human performance is characterized by limitations which can have a negative impact on safety in the flight deck.

    We’ll review some human performance limitations within Business Aviation and explore the strategies to optimize human performance in the flight deck – including the use of resources; the development of non-technical skills; and the practice of operational risk management.

    What are the Human Performance Limitations in BizAv?

    Common examples of human performance limitations within Business Aviation operations are the loss of situational awareness, according to Antonio De Marchi, a Senior Crew Resource Management Trainer.

    “These may arise at any time, and problem-solving and decision-making may be impaired as a consequence of the loss of situation awareness.

    “If a pilot is performing an approach in bad weather conditions, the same pilot can experience so-called ‘tunnel vision’, and may focus on maintaining certain parameters (such as speed and pitch), but lose other parameters, such as altitude and thrust setting.”

    In the history of Business Aviation, one of the key ways to address human performance limitations has been through the apparently endless upgrading of aircraft technology, and in particular via the automation of tasks on the flight deck. Electronic checklists, electronic navigation and en-route charts, vertical navigation displays, predictive windshear detection systems, and more, all bear witness to this.

    Situational Awareness

    While the intent of the developers of automated technology is to support improved situational awareness of crews, the end result frequently leads to pilot complacency, reducing – and sometimes even losing – situational awareness.

    Automation should not merely be seen as a means for creating reduced pilot workload: It should ultimately lead to more efficient workload management.

    “If, for example, pilots have to cope with unreliable airspeed indications during cruise, it’s important to immediately disengage the autopilot and the autothrottle/auto-thrust and revert to basic flying skills like pitch and power,” De Marchi says.

    “It is important that pilots are aware they will always have opportunities to reduce the level of automation during normal operations. They should treat automation with a measure of detachment, and be ready to intervene manually when needed.”

    Optimizing the use of Resources

    One core strategy for improving situational awareness (and thereby optimizing human performance on the flight deck), is to make the most of the human resources available. Even in a single pilot operation, it’s possible to improve situation awareness by providing for an extra ‘pair of eyes’…

    A second pilot can be on the flight deck when a trip requires a flight into an unfamiliar airport, or in marginal weather conditions. And that extra pair of eyes doesn’t necessarily have to be a pilot. It could be a technical crew member, or a dispatcher with a good knowledge of aircraft operations who can help identify hazards ‘live’, and/or simplify the management and conduct of tasks in the flight deck.

    “This contributes to reduce the workload and improves situation awareness,” De Marchi notes. “Having another person onboard can also help to deal with possible pilot incapacitation. “The other person on the flight deck can help the pilot feel psychologically at ease, simply because they may intervene with help if needed.”

    Non-Technical Skills

    Another important strategy would be to focus on developing situational awareness in training, and developing non-technical skills in general. These are interpersonal skills that cover the social and cognitive component and complement the technical skills, making them more effective and efficient.

    Communication is one of the non-technical skills that can significantly optimize human performance on the fight deck. “Standardized checklists provide ways for improved communication quality, and should be thoroughly practiced,” De Marchi suggests.

    “Oftentimes checklists can have very few items – sometimes even only three – and pilots may develop the habit of conducting the checklist mnemonically. Because of this habit, it becomes easier to forget – or not to conduct one or more items in the checklist.

    “With checklists the quality of communication is only ensured when reference is made to the actual list, be it printed or digital,” he suggests. “This is important because the items on a checklist are often the last gate to catch an error.”

    Operational Risk Management

    The ‘Threat and Error Management’ model can also be used to increase situational awareness, especially during briefing and debriefing, as a support tool to identify and address threats, and capture and correct errors.

    “As an example, if we expect to have windshear conditions on departure it is very important to review the windshear recovery procedures normally published in the Quick Reference Handbook, and also the practice of moving from an abnormal event to a normal condition”, De Marchi illustrates.

    Finally, a good practice to improve situational awareness is to establish a procedure requiring a risk assessment to be conducted for every individual mission.

    Unlike in airline operations, every flight in Business Aviation is a new experience, requiring its own risk assessment from the flight department.

    “The quality of risk assessment boils down to a pilot’s mind-set,” De Marchi suggests. “Flying regularly to a destination where 90% of the time the weather is good without properly checking destination and en route alternates is not good risk awareness.

    “A proper risk assessment mind-set is one that does not become complacent with experience – it is one that recognises that all flight safety hazards can possibly manifest, and it considers them all in the preparation and conduct of a business aircraft mission,” he concludes.

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