Studying aviation’s effect on the human mind in first person

 - May 6, 2008, 5:10 AM

Like all high-tech industries, aviation has hardware, software and wetware. The last is a euphemism for the gray matter between a pilot’s ears (or a controller’s, mechanic’s or any other operator’s, for that matter). Over the 10 decades of powered flight, we’ve vastly improved aircraft engines and airframes. In the past two decades or so, computer processors and databases have left their indelible imprint on avionics. But we still fumble along with trying to understand how the human mind fits into the overall loop of flight management.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has a segment on its Web site entitled “An interesting career in psychology.” Two recent entries include the paths of a pair of Ph.D.s who have found their way into the study of aviation human factors. Their first-person stories present an interesting perspective on the aviation industry from those who study how the mind works–and what to do about it.

As the Marine Corps’ aviation safety director, Robert Tyler, Ph.D., noted, more aircraft crashed during Operation Desert Storm while avoiding suspected enemy fire than were actually shot down. He wrote, “I was increasingly plagued with the conundrum of why highly trained, physically fit, well disciplined aviators would end up flying their superbly maintained, perfectly functioning, state-of-the-art flying machines into the ground. In search of answers to this question, I found myself enrolled in a terminal degree program in human-factors psychology.”

Far from being a typical desk-bound theorist, Tyler began his career as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. “I was ‘doing’ human factors long before I knew what it was,” he wrote. He described how he and his fellow pilots “abused the automation” of their helicopters, creating unauthorized operating procedures to minimize the time spent low and slow on predictable flight trajectories in hot landing zones. Essentially, the procedure used the CH-47 Chinook’s twin rotors as huge speed brakes, he said. Unfortunately, the process led to some helicopters losing their tails in flight. In that case, Tyler admitted that he was “part of the problem,” regarding aviation human factors, but his later military career led him to incorporate airline-initiated cockpit resource management procedures into Marine Corps aviation doctrine.

“At first,” he wrote, “human factors was about fitting humans into specific cockpits. Later we began to focus on those ‘life stressors’ that could distract a pilot and ultimately cause a mishap.” Tyler’s pursuit of ever more complex solutions to human-factors issues led him to his doctorate degree in psychology and his current position as adjunct professor in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s extended-campus program. He also serves as a human-factors consultant to the FAA.

Tyler recently accepted the position of director of modeling and simulation for MTS Technologies, a tech support company with a number of contracts with the DOD. He told AIN, “My favorite coffee cup has two quotes of particular interest to engineers. One is ‘If the user can’t find it, the function is not there,’ and, ‘Know thy users–for they are not you.’”

Holly Landwehr, Ph.D., took a decidedly different route to her last position as a human-factors engineer at Raytheon Aircraft. Graduating with a B.S. in psychology from Emporia (Kan.) State University in 1991, she received a master’s degree from the same institution in 1993. Then, as a graduate teaching assistant, she strung together temporary teaching jobs, landing at Wichita State University for one semester. With its Ph.D. program in human-factors psychology, WSU lured Landwehr into signing up for her doctorate. The subject of her dissertation involved the effects of personality on maximum-acceptable frequency with a drilling task–not exactly gripping aviation-related subject matter.

But during her doctoral studies she completed an internship in ergonomics at Cessna’s engineering department. Among her duties there was serving as project lead in a study of the accommodation and comfort of crew and cabin seats. Concerning her doctoral studies, Landwehr wrote, “I effectively combined psychology with engineering and my dissertation committee comprised four psychologists and one professional ergonomist. He is the one who instilled in me an enthusiasm for ergonomics.”

Landwehr received her doctorate in May 1999, and had already secured an internship with Raytheon’s safety department. She wrote, “My duties included conducting ergonomics training, providing expert testimony and participating in engineering design reviews.”

Last August she moved into the Raytheon engineering department, where she served as a human-factors engineer in the industrial design and visualization and core interiors group. Her projects included improving the comfort of crew and cabin seats, accommodating children and older adults, anticipating the demographics of potential aircraft customers, evaluating seat foam for aircraft use and investigating how potential customers–pilots and passengers–will interact with virtually any part of the aircraft. Unfortunately, her position was eliminated as part of the recent layoffs at Raytheon Aircraft.

In Tyler’s case, his studies in psychology have had a direct effect on the way pilots fly day-in and day-out. Landwehr’s influence was more subtle, but could nevertheless play an important role in aircraft interior design. It could be something as simple as where to place a load-bearing handhold for an elderly passenger, or making sure that the height adjustment on the pilot’s seat is easily accessible while in flight. In both their capacities, however, Landwehr and Tyler used the provable science of psychology as a shortcut to trial-and-error methods of designing cabins or operating procedures.