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Leading Edge: New Era of Human Factors

By By Frank Lombardi | February 1, 2013
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We live in amazing times. As I compose this month’s column on my laptop, I’ve got my tablet to the left of me, and my smartphone to my right. Poised and ready to provide the answers to all my questions, they are the ultimate reference. Well, almost. I’ve been “googling” around for a while now, looking for a human factors term I learned in graduate school, yet I simply cannot find anything that sounds like what I remember.

After conceding, I grabbed my human factors textbook off the shelf, skimmed the index, and found the term I was looking for. I was able to rely on recognition, instead of the “free recall” necessary to use a search engine. Turning to the page, the surrounding paragraphs put that term into context. At the same time, it created a perfect example for the basis of this month’s column.

“Smart” devices and associated software bring new benefits to our aviation profession every day. They have revolutionized the way we learn in the classroom, the way we plan a flight, and how we operate in the cockpit. There’s no debating they are an indispensable tool and hold enormous potential. But as aviation is so intolerant of error, we must also examine the downside of our planned advances. After all, we are only human, and much of what we don’t understand still lies within ourselves.


Emerging technology always brings a new batch of human factors for engineers to deal with. Smart devices rely on a specific input method (touch/multi-touch), which constrains the way we can interact with the software. This demands a re-thinking of the user-interface so the interaction is efficient and productive, lest we become “cognitively lost.” It’s the term I searched out in my textbook earlier—and something we cannot afford in the cockpit. You probably already have a list of applications that are user-friendly and those that are not.

I have begun to notice some other potential pitfalls of our favorite technologies. I can still rattle off phone numbers of every neighbor on the block I grew up on, yet, I couldn’t tell you the numbers of most of my current coworkers. They’re all just names on a contact list, and only good to me when my smartphone is within arms-reach. Do you remember the phone number to the Flight Service Station, automated weather service of your local airports, or other important numbers? Or do you just have them programmed into your device?

As a teenager, I could look up at the night sky and “star-hop” from one side of the horizon to the other, naming stars and constellations based on their proximity to others. Now I have an expensive GoTo telescope, which can point right to an object with a push of a button, allowing me to look at thousands of objects in its database. Take it away from me, however, and I am again cognitively lost, barely able to point you toward any of them. I’m left only with all the objects I remembered as a teen. When helicopter vibration has finally put your moving map system out of commission, do you reach for your paper map or your smartphone? There are arguments for both. But how does the situational awareness of those who reach for the phone or map differ? Remember, your GPS can tell you where you stand, but that doesn’t mean you know where you are.

These examples highlight a shift in the way technology is shaping the way we learn and use information. The fact that we are more inclined to grab the nearest web-based search engine to find an answer and then quickly move on, rather than learn something and store it in our brain’s “hard drive” has been termed the “google effect.”

When we talk about good crew resource management (CRM) as the ability to use all information available as a tool, today’s technology opens us up to a world of help. But don’t let total reliance on technology become a “single-point failure” in your plan. Engineers do not like single-point failures, as they cause the whole system to stop working.

Wisdom in aviation is built slowly, over time. As we mature in our profession, we amass knowledge; we build an internal database that grows over the years. From this, we develop our aviation wisdom. This process is short-circuited by instant access to information in today’s world. We no longer remember all things, we just remember where to find an answer. How will this philosophy impact the wisdom of future aviators? I’m not sure. As for now, I don’t know about you, but if I am in an extreme situation, and left to choose between relying on the knowledge in my device or what’s in my head, I’ll choose me.

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