Sunday, September 08, 2013

Four Bad Omens for a Human Factors Course

There are a lot of accidents cause by pilots flying in poor weather. Decades ago Canadian aviation authorities tried to rectify this by increasing meteorological knowledge requirements and offering more opportunities for ongoing learning, and I think also improved weather information products. In the process, someone realized that pilots knew what kind of weather was forecast, knew the implications for their flight, and went flying in it anyway. It wasn't about what the pilots knew or how good the forecasts were. It was about the decisions they made with that information.

So we have Human Factors training, about the human, not mechanical or meteorological, factors in the accident chain. The theory is that if we understand why and how humans make stupid decisions and arm ourselves with some strategies to avoid such decisions, that we will make safer decisions. It's mandatory recurrent training. I recently had to ground a pilot I supervise because company records didn't show human factors training to be complete.

Last time mine was up for renewal, the safety coordinator and ops manager had signed us up for an online course. That's not an uncommon nor even a totally unwelcome form of information delivery these days. The NASA icing course is fantastic. Also free. This one wasn't, but after the first few minutes my expectations were not high.

Omen #1: The course can only be accessed though Internet Explorer.

Omen #2: When I open the course in IE, the server barfs a full page of java error messages because it can't handle the fact that I have a three letter language code set in the browser for my first choice language.

I reset the browser to en-ca and then again to plain old en and the server will finally talk to me. It asks me, "Do you think you could ever make a mistake leading to a potential aviation accident like that shown in the photograph?"

While the photograph is loading I think, "yes" because I know I make mistakes. The text is saying something similar. And then I look at the picture. It's a helicopter. So I amend my thought to, "No, I probably wouldn't try to fly a helicopter, but if I did, it would look like that shortly."

Omen #3: The next words are "However, this program will help you, an Aircraft Maintenance Technician (AMT), avoid the error you don't intend to make by raising your awareness of how those errors are made."

Um ... I'm not an AMT. Have I got the wrong course here? It's all registered to my name. Good abbreviation though. A way to refer to AMEs and apprentices in one go without having to know their paperwork status.

Omen #4 The words "to facilitate your learning you should view the "Human Factors in Aircraft Maintenance" video. The video can be obtained from Transport Canada."

Wait, they are doing web delivery of a course that requires me to go to a branch office of Transport Canada and borrow a video cassette? Okay TC has probably got it on DVD now, but geez, are they going to deliver the content or a pointer to it?

Every slide is illustrated by accident porn: the crumpled strewn remains of an aircraft. It probably sounds really macabre but in aviation we do think about these things all the time. I learned to fly in an airplane that had the words "serious injury or death" placarded in at least two different places on the dashboard in front of me. You pretty much have to present a pilot (or aircraft maintainer) with a crumpled ball of snot and aluminum to make us sit up and pay attention.

Sometimes the text doesn't change when I advance to the next slide and sometimes only part of it changes, so I have to play "spot the difference" to get the content. The core of the content is a menu of "dirty dozen" human susceptibilities. I've seen these before on maintenance breakroom posters. It's the AMT (see, I'm using my newly acquired knowledge) equivalent of the Five Dangerous Attitudes that the pilot-oriented courses teach. The student can work through the dirty dozen in any order, but even though the course encourages you not to try to do it all at once, there is no bookmark, done flag or other indication of which ones you've completed.

There are videos embedded in some slides. Possibly they are embedded in all the ones where nothing seemed to happen when I clicked next, so I clicked next again. If so, the course allowed me to go on without viewing the video. It tells me to "Click on "Continue" to see a suggestion." There's no continue button and I can't go on because the next is greyed out. I pressed the button for French, because that wasn't greyed out, and the program crashed. I log back in and look at some more, then it crashes again on refresh.

There's irony in that I'm doing this training while somewhat fatigued from last night's overnight flight and distracted by constantly checking the weather for tonight's, two of the dirty dozen right there. I'll go get a nap and tell you more about it later.


LocalFlightEast said...

This line really did make me laugh out loud

No, I probably wouldn't try to fly a helicopter, but if I did, it would look like that shortly.

Even as a PPL to be , I find human factors to be the topic that is handled the worst in any ground school. To me it is the most important and yet so badly handled. There seems to be a huge disconnect between theory and actual practice. Sit people down with a TAF predicting thunderstorms , high winds and crappy visibility enroute and everyone will nod sagely and say " Oh I'd never fly in that" but everyday people do.

Wayne Conrad said...

"It probably sounds really macabre but in aviation we do think about these things all the time."

Oh, yeah. All the time.

My instructor for gliders was teaching me how to "ridge soar." That's where you traverse the upwind side of a ridge, getting lift from the wind being deflected up by the rising terrain. At the end of each traversal, you make a 180 to go the other way. These turns are done close enough to the ground that recovery from an upset would be... problematic.

My instructor had me doing this training, this traversing back and forth with turns-close-to-the-ground, on a ridge which was decorated with the wreck of a glider, somewhat crumpled. As I was practicing, my instructor explained how the pilot had, during one of those turns-close-to-the-ground, asked the wings for a bit more alpha than they could manage. In the subsequent stall/spin, the pilot broke both ankles (a lucky outcome). After that, I could hardly make a turn without a brief image of that glider (and two broken ankles!) in my mind. What an effective reminder to stay coordinated and unstalled, better than any slide show or poster.

All the time indeed.

nec Timide said...

I'm not sure what it is about some pilots and Human Factors. I think most pilots "get it" but the few who don't end up on the front page. S/He who gets the publicity sets the stereotype.

Actually I should re-phrase that as "I'm not sure what it is about some people ..." Having quite a bit of experience in industrial process safety I can assure you it isn't a failing that is unique to the flying community. The big difference is there is very little middle ground when it comes to injury severity in aviation. You don't see a lot of pilots missing fingers or toes, at least not that were lost in flying accidents. In a factory a journeyman or master trades person is a walking billboard for safety.

Like all porn, accident porn looses its impact as viewers become jaded. I think aviation safety needs to look at different sources for inspiration. One of the airplanes I've flown was wrecked in a hand propping accident a few years ago. It lost a propeller Nanchuku battle with a larger plane. An interview with the two young boys in the other airplane, taking their first flight with their grandfather, would leave a greater impression than another picture of crumpled aluminium or a burn scar. But that's just my opinion.

Sarah said...

Web pages designed for a particular browser, or requiring specific software are really frustrating.

Especially for a Linux/OSX user like myself. I do have a windows desktop, but use it only for a couple flight sim games. It runs Windows XP, believe it or not.

Part of this is the arrogance of market domination by uSoft. OS agnosticism is difficult to accomplish. Java was supposed to fix that ( you know, 'write once, run everywhere' ... more typically, 'write once, debug everywhere' ).

The best multimedia courseware I've seen has been FAA and AOPA stuff. It's well produced, and runs flawlessly with "Flash" software. Unfortunately, some course designers are given less good tools and off they go.. Good Luck.

majroj said...

This sort of decision-making mindset also applies to others making important decisions with potentially dire consequences. I'd be interested ion reading more materials about it so I can correlate it to emergency field medicine (some of us have stolen the old test pilot term "coffin corner" already).