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Research Benefits Warfighters and Air Traffic Controllers

Better human decision making is the best remedy for military and
commercial aircraft collisions, according to a local air traffic controller.

By John Schutte / Human Effectiveness Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio, April 11, 2006 – Better human decision making is the best remedy for military and commercial aircraft collisions, according to a local air traffic controller.

"It has been determined that 60 to 80 percent of all (aviation) accidents are a result of human failure, not catastrophic systems failure," said Bruce Green, an air traffic controller for 14 years with the Air Force and Air National Guard, including the last eight years with the 178th Fighter Wing at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.

"Situational awareness is the number one cause of all mishaps," he pointed out.

Situational awareness refers to how accurately a person perceives his current environment relative to the reality of that environment.

Simply put, it is the knowledge of what is going on around you, and being able to function appropriately – a critical ability in the complex and dynamic aviation environment.

"Increased situational awareness is critical to improving human performance," Green said. For controllers and aircrew, it is a matter of staying alert, communicating clearly and following procedures."

"The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Human Effectiveness Directorate conducts human factors research to develop better equipment, procedures and techniques for warfighters that also benefit air traffic controllers," he noted.

" Increased situational awareness is critical to improving human performance. For controllers and aircrew, it is a matter of staying alert, communicating clearly and following procedures."

Bruce Green, air traffic controller

"I’m excited by the ongoing research at the Human Effectiveness Directorate dealing with the interaction between human and automated systems," Green said. "This correlates directly to the guidance given by the Federal Aviation Administration to its controller force in the separation of aircraft, to use ‘automation in preference to non-automation.’"

Researchers at the directorate’s warfighter readiness research division are developing communications and decision-making training for combat operators in high-stress situations.

The biosciences and protection division is studying the link between physical fatigue and cognitive performance and investigating the potential for nutritional supplements to prevent or reduce the effects of fatigue.

Mistakes by air traffic controllers "often mirror those experienced by pilots, specifically ineffective communications, inadequate leadership and poor decision making," Green explained.

"Everything you’ve ever heard about (controllers), the stresses, the anxieties, they’re all true," he said.

Poor communication, physical fatigue, repetitive familiarity, complacency and boredom can reduce the ability to think

See Caption.
Bruce Green, an air traffic controller currently with the 178th Fighter Wing at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport in Springfield, Ohio, checks data at a workstation in the recently completed $8 million air traffic control tower. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Human Effectiveness Directorate conducts human factors research to develop better equipment, procedures and techniques for warfighters that also benefit air traffic controllers. U.S. Air Force photo by Chris Gulliford

clearly; as situational awareness decreases, the risk of human error increases, with potentially deadly consequences.

Green recently addressed the Wright Brothers Chapter of the SAFE Association, a professional society of engineers and scientists concerned with safety and human performance.

He described how human error in mid-air collisions has driven changes to commercial and military aviation regulations.

The topic was timely, as the National Transportation Safety Board recently ruled human error as a factor in the October 2004 crash of American Connection Flight 5966 in Missouri, which killed 13 people and severely injured two others.

The board cited pilot fatigue and failure to follow cockpit procedures but also pointed to the airplane’s lack of a low-altitude warning system. Five months after the crash, regulators made that system mandatory.

"Many of the rules we apply in air traffic control, sadly, are written in the blood of other people’s failures," Green said.

A 1960s study cited human factors as the leading cause of aviation accidents. But not until 1981 did a major air carrier, United Airlines, put a human factors management program in place.

"Subsequently, crew resource management training, or CRM, was implemented to focus on aircrew dynamics, communications and leadership," he said.

CRM became mandatory for Air Force aircrews and controllers after an F-16 and a C-130 collided over Pope Air Force Base, N.C., in 1994.

The C-130 landed without incident, but the F-16 pilot ejected, and his aircraft crashed into a staging area where 24 Army paratroopers were killed.

Investigators blamed a chain of errors by civilian and military air-traffic controllers.

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