Friday, October 8, 2010

Summary of HFES conference in SF

I went to the excellent Human Factors and Ergonomics Society conference in San Francisco last week. The keynote address was delivered by pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Some of the talk was motivational, and some was specific to the human factors of the design of airline cockpit alerts, crew training, and performance under stress.

The emergency landing in the Hudson River in January 2009 was illustrated by a simulation showing a map of the area and an animated path of the aircraft from takeoff to landing. Overlaid on the screen was a clock, an altimeter, and some of the voice recordings between pilot and tower. Some interesting details that the speaker mentioned:

  • The entire incident until landing was less than four minutes. He formulated his plan in less than a minute.
  • There is an SOP for a situation in which both engines are lost, but it’s three printed pages long, obviously written for situations where the aircraft is at a high altitude. Some SOPs are printed, some are electronic, and pilots have to know where to look to get the right SOP.
  • He had never specifically trained to ditch a commercial aircraft in water. The only training he received was a theoretical classroom discussion about it years earlier.
  • He had never experienced a catastrophic equipment failure in 29 years of commercial flying.
  • He feels that he was relying on his experience, including his fighter pilot experience 29 years earlier, to land the aircraft.
  • He didn’t realize that he’d done everything correctly until the investigation into the crash concluded two months later.
  • He was unable to deploy the flaps as he wanted to due to a software misfeature that was known only to a few software engineers. This caused the plane to come in faster and at a steeper angle than he wanted. This caused more damage to the underside of the aircraft than was necessary, and contributed to an injury.
  • Airlines are reducing training to keep costs down. They train only to minimum FAA requirements and no more. He predicts that training shortfalls will become obvious only in the future and in exceptional circumstances. In other words, disasters will have to occur and data collected before changes will be made to training requirements.
  • Commercial flight simulators still do not train pilots in the scenario he experienced in Jan. 2009.

The conference was heavy on NextGen research for airline industry and the health care industry. I chaired a session on "Management perspectives on building UX departments," which generated a lot of good discussion. I took a tour of the Autodesk office. I even ran into some people from the rail industry from Australia. And, of course, San Francisco is an excellent city to visit.

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