NASA boldly going where man has been before?

Is NASA barking up the wrong tree with its “large transport aircraft upset recovery research programme?”

While I’m sure that the human factors, physiological and psychological results of testing pilots in centrifuges will be scientifically interesting, I’m not so sure they will be useful.

NASA is not the first organisation to do research on why pilots become disorientated. The NTSB’s senior human performance investigator Dr William Bramble, having done lots of research on what happens in real cases, suggests the most useful solution is an education for pilots about the physiological and psychological causes of disorientation, including the fact that distractions from instrument flying are frequently a precursor to it. He points out that distractions during a turn at night or in instrument meteorological conditions were common to all the recent serious disorientation cases that actually caused fatal airline accidents.

Boeing also devised and ran a simple but ingenious test recently to determine whether appropriate upset recovery training  actually improves pilot performance. The result? It does.

The point I think NASA may be missing is this: when pilots look up at the instrument panel and see a picture that is totally different from what they expected to see - in fact it feels unbelievable because of preconceived notions about what is really going on - the SOP is to believe the instruments. Human sensory organs are so easily fooled that sensory misperceptions are a major part of the disorientation problem. So successful recovery from an upset entails blanking out any “seat-of-the-pants” physiological sensations and recovering the aircraft to straight and level flight (plus safe flying speed) purely according to what you see on the displays.

Doing tests that prove the human senses are easily fooled and that full flight simulators are no good at representing sustained accelerations is a waste of time because these are known truths.  

2 Responses to NASA boldly going where man has been before?

  1. G Man 26 March, 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    I think you may have missed the point actually David.

    I do upset recovery every 9 months in a big Boeing sim and it has become a big yawnfest and barely relevant. The simulator is completely unrealistic in (not) making it feel like you are experiencing the pitch/roll attidues that it is trying to replicate. All the thing does is lurch around and get damaged by all this wild manoeuvring, risking a missed training slot for the next crew. Far more realistic machines are needed if this training is to have much value. I teach aerobatics away from my day job, and I assure you there is no way these current sims do any justice to the manoeuvers. This is a good start to finding a good alternative with purpose designed and built simulators that can really help disorient you. These do not.

  2. David Learmount 26 March, 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    Dear G Man

    Thanks for being so polite!

    I know that, in writing this blog, I have taken the risk that I might have misunderstood what NASA’s ultimate objectives are. In fact I have suggested to my DC-based colleague John Croft, who wrote the story the blog is based on, that he draw NASA into this debate. I am more than happy to be told I have the wrong end of the stick if that is the truth of it.

    But my solution to the problem you describe, which I am well aware of from personal experience, is to use fixed-base simulators.

    I argue that on the grounds that, as per the blog, if pilots are faced with disorientation (vertigo, “the leans” or whatever your favourite description is), they have to negate all their physical feelings and perceptions and concentrate totally on the instruments, solving the problem according to those and absolutely nothing else.

    So if the sensations generated by full flight simulators are inadequate and can never, in a commercially viable product, replicate the feelings associated with extreme attitudes, then get rid of the motion.

    Advanced simulators for high performance military aircraft are all fixed-base, an acknowledgement of the fact that simulator motions systems could not possibly come anywhere near replicating the sensations of a mission that is a series of high-G manoeuvres.

    Why do we bother with motion at all, when we are basically in a simulator to familiarise with systems behaviour etc, and to polish flying procedures rather than flying itself? A simulator, even today’s best, cannot teach you to fly.