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Personality & Flight Safety is Complex.

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

Ever since the early days of aviation, when the Civil Aeronautics Board (before FAA) put in place the first rules and regulations to bring order to the barnstormers, federal regulators have been trying to identify and isolate those pilots who are destined to jeopardise public safety by causing accidents.

The FAA recognises that pilots, like all humans, have different personalities, behaviours and intelligence, attitude and skill levels. Research by the FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute and other institutions are promoting an understanding of human factors in aviation, how those factors affect learning and decision making, and how they may be precursors to accidents.

Not even in military aviation, where discipline is fundamental, can every square human be made to fit into every regulatory round hole.

In a five-year period ending in 2007, the Air Force found that “lack of discipline” was a factor in 23 Class A aircraft mishaps. Class A mishaps involve loss of life, injury resulting in permanent disability, destruction of an Air Force aircraft and/or property damage exceeding $1 million.

In 2003 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) completed a statistical analysis of the General aviation (GA) accidents. It found that of the 1,635 accident pilots for which data was available, 46% had 1,000 or fewer flight hours and 16% had 200 or fewer flight hours. Of the 1,635 accident pilots, 27% had more than 3,000 hours and 16% had more than 8,000 hours. About 41% of GA accident pilots had 100 or fewer hours in the aircraft make and model. About 14% of accident pilots had more than 1,000 hours in the make and model.

It’s easy to understand why accident risk would be relatively high when you don’t have much experience, especially in a particular aircraft. More difficult to understand is why accident risk also spikes at the high end of the hourly spectrum. The implication is that pilots are as much an accident risk when they’ve amassed 8,000 hours as before they crossed the 200-hour mark. It may be that some high-time pilots believe they’ve reached a point where it’s not necessary to keep learning. They may also believe that their experience and superior skills will more than compensate for any careless acts or muddled thinking. Using the same reasoning, they may believe that there’s no need to find out why other pilots crash because they’re too experienced to make the same mistakes.

Human Error in Aviation

James Reason, psychology professor at England’s University of Manchester, has studied human error in aviation and other industries. He finds that you need to identify and correct a person’s unsafe acts and elements of the system that may encourage such acts. Unsafe acts, when looked at in the context of the person, are due to problematic mental processes, such as recklessness, negligence, carelessness, inattention and poor motivation. But Reason is concerned that too much focus on the person makes it difficult to find systemic problems that may set the stage for recurring errors. That may be fine for airlines, where pilots work within a complex system, but, for the most part, GA pilots fly unsupervised and must be capable of self-awareness and self-evaluation.

There are three basic types of errors: skill-based, decision-based and perceptual. In skill-based errors, two pilots may have the same training and same number of flight hours, yet possess vastly different skills. Pilot #1 may have trouble turning to headings and capturing altitudes, while pilot #2 can make any air-plane soar like an eagle. Decision-based errors are a result of intentional behaviour. Sometimes they’re excused as “honest mistakes,” while at other times they reflect a lack of basic knowledge. These errors can involve using wrong procedures, making a poor choice from known options, or incorrectly gathering information to evaluate a situation that’s new to the pilot. Perceptual errors are made because observations have been affected by illusions, spatial disorientation or preconceptions.

Violations constitute wilful disregard for the rules, regulations and procedures that govern the safety of flight. Many in aviation believe that the FAA regulations are so complex and subject to interpretation that you can’t conduct any flight without violating some rule. An unsafe pilot believes that because you routinely violate some obscure FAR anyway, or are philosophically opposed to government regulation, you might as well ignore everything the FAA has promulgated. Flying while your medical certificate is in your wallet, which you left in the glove compartment of your car, is a violation, but not a safety issue. Flying in night/IFR conditions when you’re not instrument-rated is a violation and a very serious safety hazard. Even when there’s a safety issue, there’s an enormous difference between someone who deviates from a regulation or procedure because it’s expedient and someone who deviates because he or she resents authority.

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