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Analog experience instrumental to pilot safety

October 16, 2014

INITIAL results into a study into the way pilots look at digital and analog instruments suggest experienced pilots facing an emergency will spend twice as much time looking at their instruments as novices.

The study by PhD student ­Sravan Pingali is testing volunteers in Swinburne University of Technology's flight simulators to see how pilots cope with the switch between digital and analog cockpits.

The results will be presented to the Aerospace Medical Association conference in Orlando, ­Florida, in May and the head of Swinburne's Aviation Simulation Laboratory, David Newman, hopes it will produce recommendations for improved pilot training globally.

There is evidence pilots who have trained on analog instruments generally find it easier to move to a digital cockpit than vice versa.

According to Dr Newman, this is because pilots using older ­instruments scan them constantly in a highly disciplined sequence to create a picture of what an aircraft is doing and constantly updating it.

By contrast, modern digital readouts do much of the computing for pilots and displays it on one or two main screens. "In recent years a lot of our students have done a lot of training in a digital cockpit, a Cessna 172 or whatever, but their first job on graduating with their CPL might be flying an older plane with an analog cockpit,'' he said. "If you've flown digital you get very used to that very quickly. So we think, and the ­industry has seen some evidence of this, that people who digitally trained going back to fly an analog cockpit will find it harder to do that than if you go from analog to digital.

"So ultimately, with that in mind, what we're looking at is if there are differences between pilots who have trained on analog or trained on digital, when they're presented with an analog or a digital cockpit.''

The research is looking at various scenarios: daytime visual flight rules with emergencies and unusual attitudes and then repeating that under instrument conditions.

It is extending it to look at helicopters and is looking at how experienced pilots work compared to novices.

Initial results suggest experienced pilots manage an emergency or an unusual attitude quite differently from novice pilots in terms of what they look at and what percentage of time they look at instruments or outside the cockpit.

"We discovered the more ­experienced pilots will look inside at the instruments basically twice as much as a novice pilot,'' Dr Newman said.

"The experienced pilot seems to know that in an unusual attitude you go straight to instruments and make them read straight and level and you're OK.

"Whereas the novice pilots tend to look outside a lot to work out what's going on which is not as helpful.'' Subjects wear sophisticated head-mounted eye-tracking technology, which enables the researchers to map which instruments they are using.

"It's that accurate that we can work out whether they're looking at the vertical speed or the airspeed ... and we can see their eyes jumping back and forth,'' Dr Newman said.

One thing the study is not designed to do is to answer the longstanding debate about simulator training versus other types of training. "We're just interested in how pilots manage the information flow from the cockpit they're presented with based on their experience and what they've learnt,'' he said.

"And as we understand that more that might help us work out better ways to train people.''

The study could also lead to better designed instruments, ­although Dr Newman said it was too early to say whether this would be the case.

PHOTO:  PhD student Sravan Pingali in a flight simulator with David Newman, head of Swinburne's Aviation Simulation Laboratory. Source: Supplied

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