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Human Factors (Blog 604)

 Pilot Human Factors and addressing your fear of flying


Some fearful flyers are happy with the technicalities of flight but worry about pilots “being human and prone to mistakes”. Perhaps this is a connection to the distant past when Pilot Error was often cited as the reason for an air accident.

When I started teaching people to fly back in the 60’s we young instructors were always keen to know the reasons for air crashes in the hope that we would not commit similar mistakes. Back then we didn’t have the historical perspective that we do now, despite the so called ‘miracle of flight’, planes were pretty basic and unreliable compared with today’s planes. ‘Pilot error’ included the  mis-handling of fuel valves that didn’t locate accurately, flight instruments that were confusing to read, airports with poor landing aids, poor weather forecasting  and a host of other things that the steely blued eyed and resourceful fighter pilot archetype was supposed to deal with. It was an impossible task and the realisation of  a pilot ‘being human’ paradoxically started to remove blame from him in one area and lay it on him in another.

As an illustration: Altimeters need to be set according to local pressure during the descent and landing phase. However there are two options in what to set, option one, set to an airfield’s height above sea level, option two, set so that the altimeter reads zero on touch down. Since the height of mountains is recorded against sea level and not the height of local airfields option one would seem the obvious setting.

On the other hand it’s a plausible argument to have it reading zero on landing rather than 5000 feet when landing at Nairobi for instance. Many airlines used both settings, one for descent and then when closer to the airfield change to the other. A perfect solution it would seem, except that sometimes it was not done, and on other occasions would be done inaccurately ( 989 MB instead of 998MB).This particular error causing the altimeter to under read by 330 feet.

This confusion or inaction would come under the heading of Human Factors which is still down to the crew but rather than apportioning blame, i.e.  Pilot Error, Human Factors looks for the reason behind the error. So the emphasis went from why, rather than who.

Other factors came into play at the same time.

Engines became more reliable, the ergonomics of cockpits was improved  and flight data could be computer processed and  the emphasis on ‘why rather than ‘who’ transformed aircraft development and pilot training into what it is now … with the significant drop in accidents we have seen in recent years.
In subsequent blogs on human factors I shall cover subjects such as operating procedures, leadership, communication, decision making and so on.

To conclude this blog I need to answer the question why. Why am I writing it? The answer is so that anyone with a fear of flying can understand more about how crews are trained and how it improves air safety.

Overcoming a fear of flying is not an easy journey, but it is better to learn the facts rather than search for a reason stemming from a childhood experience. Of course some fearful flyers will have experienced  trauma which affects them, but much more likely is a mis-understood ‘trauma’ like turbulence or taking off.

Captain Keith



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