Understanding Human Limitations in an Aviation Environment

Understanding Human Limitations in an Aviation Environment
By: Paul W. Comtois, Colonel (RET.)
Whenever I approach the topic of Loss of Control (LOC) in preparation for an academic session or a simulator scenario, I always remind myself of the actual environment in which pilots operate and train. At times, in an environment of low stress and 1 G, it is easy to forget the challenging world of actual flight. On top of that, most academic and simulator training events can be boiled down to practicing aircraft procedures, crew resource management and aircraft malfunctions.
But how do you gain practical knowledge regarding the limits of human capabilities? Understanding your own personal limits—be they mental, physical or physiological—is a very important part of safely accomplishing your flight. It is one thing to be cognitively tasked, but when you mix in physiological and physical challenges, your training better matches the harsh realities of flight.
As humans, we were not designed for high altitude, high-speed flight in three-dimensional environments. Our human orientation systems (including visual, auditory and others) have significant limitations. Additionally, think about the oxygen requirements when flying at altitudes above 10,000 feet. Throw in the stress factors of an instantaneous upset—with the need to make critical decisions in a matter of seconds—and you can see how quickly certain situations can become highly taxing on a crew.
Let’s evaluate a common error found in both the Colgan and Air France accidents. Although there are many factors to review, the actions of the pilots’ right at the moment of startle caused significant problems. Both pilots pulled back on the yoke/side stick controller in response to the startling condition. Both aircraft entered a stall and the stalled condition remained until ground impact. We all know if an aircraft is stalled, we are to push to reduce the angle of attack in order to get the wing flying again—it’s so simple! Unfortunately, the harsh reality is human performance under duress brings about a whole different set of circumstances that the great majority of pilots have never experienced. Although you may have training drilled into your head, under what conditions? How close is your simulation experience to the actual one? Do pilots comprehend the situation properly? What we have learned from multiple accidents over the years is simply: no.
In the end, the pilot community needs to spend more time learning and training in environments that better replicate what can happen in reality. There is much to be learned, and this can be safely accomplished in a controlled environment. Do we really believe a pilot is going to accomplish critical steps in a short period of time in situations they have never experienced? How were your skills the first time you drove or the first time you piloted an airplane? There is much to be learned.
The good news is that you can obtain “the rest of the story” by attending training sessions at the NASTAR Center. I encourage you to go to About Advanced Pilot Training. Additionally, feel free to Glenn King so we can discuss this further! Thank you for your time and as always—fly safe!

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