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Too Much Data Puts Jets In Danger?

Wed Jan 07, 2004 11:34 pm

This was in The Times today, I can see where they are coming from, but not being a pilot I might not understand all the real issues, what does everyone think. Being from Nottingham I remember the Kegworth disaster even though I was only quite young and I flightdeck design was a factor then it should be investigated.

By Ben Webster

PILOTS of modern jets are so overloaded by technical information during mid-air emergencies that they risk making wrong decisions that can result in disaster, a study has found.
Computerised control systems are so complex that they “overtax the mental capabilities of fully-trained pilots”, according to research by Newcastle and York universities.

They studied the Kegworth air disaster in which 47 people died when a British Midland Boeing 737 came down on the M1 in Leicestershire in 1989.

The pilots shut down the right-hand engine when the fault was in the left engine. They believed they had made the correct decision because, by chance, it coincided with the left engine ceasing to vibrate and emit fumes.

During the approach to East Midlands Airport the left engine lost power and the crew attempted to restart the right engine but were too late.

The research concluded that the pilots had made crucial decisions based on an “oversimplified picture of reality”.

Dr Denis Besnard, from Newcastle University’s School of Computing Science, said the human brain tried to understand a situation by simplifying it when presented with many complex and conflicting pieces of information.

He added: “The pilots of the Boeing 737 were caught in what is known as a confirmation bias where, instead of looking for contradictory evidence, humans tend to overestimate consistent data.

“A potential consequence is that people overlook and sometimes unconsciously disregard data they cannot explain.”

The team’s report, published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, called for cockpit computers to be redesigned.

Computers sometimes take unexpected decisions and provide raw information which the flight crew must analyse, the report said. They should instead anticipate problems and offer pilots ways of recovering from a crisis without overloading them with information.

The fully computerised cockpit was pioneered by the European manufacturer Airbus in the 1980s. With the so-called fly-by-wire system, pilots tap journey details into the flight management system and the plane then largely flies itself. If pilots need to intervene during flights it is usually because something has gone wrong.

David Learmount, safety editor of Flight International magazine, said some modern cockpit screens present information relevant only to the current phase of flight. Pilots no longer need to keep an eye on dozens of dials.

But the vast number of choices available to pilots when inputting information on the flight computer meant errors were possible.

A Boeing spokesman said: “Modern flight management systems are designed to reduce the workload of the pilot and increase safety. Flight- deck design is constantly incorporating human factors to aid decision-making and the pilot is very much part of the process from the outset.”
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RE: Too Much Data Puts Jets In Danger?

Wed Jan 07, 2004 11:50 pm

Is this the event where they asked the flight attandant to have a look, and when facing aft, it was the right hand engine?

Bad example, because you normally have two rows (on twin engine) of engine indicators, and the one on the left is for the left engine, and the one on the right is for the right engine.

The left hand fuel cutoff switch controls the left engine, and the right hand fuel cutoff switch controls the right.

If this is the case of simply shutting down the wrong engine (not cross connected wiring), then these guys simply blew it.
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RE: Too Much Data Puts Jets In Danger?

Thu Jan 08, 2004 12:59 am

Far too many pilots have dis-regarded high vibrations from larger turbofan engines, and simply decided that they 'knew better'.
Have watched this time and again in the sim where excessive engine vibration occurs, power is reduced, vibration goes away.
Of course, when the power is restored, vibration comes back, big time.

SaudiArabian Airlines had this occur in the mid-eighties with a very heavy B747 just after takeoff from JED.
High vibs on number two, throttle reduced, vibs lower (gosh, what a surprise), power restored, engine came apart and flung bits into number one, causing a fire indication.
The Flight Engineer, thinking he would save the day, without saying anything, pulls the number one engine fire pull handle.
Opps, now down to two operating engines, at max weight, and descending at 900agl.
Only a VERY good bit of handling by the Captain kept 'em alive.
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RE: Too Much Data Puts Jets In Danger?

Thu Jan 08, 2004 4:45 am

Data overload, confirmation bias, check-off illusion etc etc are well-known problems within human factors, in aviation and otherwise. In fact I have a stack of articles on data overload in front of me right now. I'll post the titles later when I have more time, for those interested.

The good solutions are hard to find, the bad solutions are many. Context sensitivity, only showing relevant information, would solve it. That's what mr. Learmount is talking about. The problem is, what information is relevant? No real solution has been presented yet, AFAIK.

I thought I was doing good trying to avoid those airport hotels... and look at me now.
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RE: Too Much Data Puts Jets In Danger?

Fri Jan 09, 2004 5:42 pm

I discussed this report elsewhere:

Just read a few good articles/books on this subject.

Intelligent agents provide a finesse, rather than a solution to the problem (Woods, Patterson, Roth, 2002). What needs to address data overload is to enable context-sensitivity in the cockpit. To date, we are not able to create intelligent agents able to achieve this, be they rule based expert systems, model based or based on AI routines (Billings, 1997).

The human operator still provides a unique capability to switch the focus of attention to the part of the data field where it is needed the most (Woods et al). Automated agents still have a long way to go to be as capable in this respect. They also need to interface with the crew seamlessly, or they might add to rather than subtract from the data overload problem (Billings).

The very confirmation bias mentioned in the paper by Besnard & Greathead (2004) will in fact pose a problem when creating such adaptive agents. The operators might home in on the solutions presented by the system and fail to notice cues that the system did not account for, since it was not designed to do so, but which the operators probably would have noticed if left to their own devices.

We already know that this is a problem. We have a fairly good idea about how to resolve the situation. We are simply unable to achieve it, presently, and the article stops well short of where earlier work on the subject has taken us.

Besnard, D., Greathead, D. (2004). When mental models go wrong. Co-occurences in dynamic, critical systems.

Billings, C.E. (1997). Aviation Automation - The Search for a Human-Centered Approach.

Woods D.D., Patterson E.S., Roth E.M. (2002). Can We Ever Escape From Data Overload? A Cognitive Systems Diagnosis. In Cognition, Technology and Work (4:22-36).

Also worth a read:
Pritchett, A. R. (n.d). Reviewing the role of cockpit alerting systems. In Human Factors & Aerospace Safety, (1, 5-38).

Rather basic, and very undigested so don’t let yourself be fooled by the referencing. This post does not by any means meet scientific standards. But IMO, that report contained nothing new or unknown to us, even if the papers made it a headline. They know that aviation accidents sell copies, I guess... *sigh*

Basically, the report only used the aircraft accident as a backdrop for a discussion on an entirely different subject. Unfortunately, it does not take more to wake up the papers. As far as adding to the aviation domain, it is sort of like saying that light twins need more reliable engines to be safer. D'oh...

I thought I was doing good trying to avoid those airport hotels... and look at me now.
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RE: Too Much Data Puts Jets In Danger?

Fri Jan 09, 2004 6:24 pm

Well on a simular line, the Air Force started studing this when it noted that it's crews where getting overworking during air combat in Nam.

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