Scope of Aviation Psychology and Human Error
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Scope of Aviation Psychology and Human Error

Aviation Psychology

Aviation psychology involves the study of human behaviours, actions, cognitive and emotional processes in the field of aviation and investigates the psychological problems encountered in the flight deck (Kallus, Hoffmann et al., 2004).

Aviation psychology focuses specifically on pilots, flight crews and air traffic controllers. It is used for enhancing efficiency, safety procedures, recruitment, and designing training methods. Aviation psychologists help in crisis management, training, CRM, help develop better work conditions, etc. It can be applied in various fields like commercial airlines, military and government settings, aerospace medicine, and research. It helps analyze the human factors behind any mishap and work on them to prevent future incidents. Thus, it plays a crucial role in improving the field of aviation.

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Pilot error is an incident or accident that is caused by an error in the pilot’s decision-making process or their actions. This definition does not include incidents in which the pilot intentionally sabotaged or crashed the aircraft. Some examples of pilot error are following an improper procedure, spatial disorientation, premature descent, missed runway, exceeding landing speed, fuel starvation, navigation error, and mid-air collision caused by a primary pilot (the one who is in control of the aircraft).

Pilot error is the most common cause of commercial airline air crash disaster. 80% of all airline accidents are due to this error by the pilot. Since the 1950s, 533 accidents were caused by these fatal mistakes. It caused 57% of the accidents in the decade of the 2010’s itself.

Multiple reasons can be attributed to pilot error. Their job involves a high amount of stress, need to be assertive, large information processing capacity, pressure and more. These factors can act individually or in a combination to cause mishaps.

There are three categories to classify a wide variety of factors:
1. Threats

involve events external to the pilot’s control that complicates the regular operation of the aircraft. These threats can be broken down further into two categories – environmental threat (such as bad weather, ATC mistakes) and airline threats (technical malfunction, organizational pressures, etc.).

Ex. In 1958, an incident occurred in which test flight BOAC Bristol Britannia 312 crashed into terrain. The reasons for this accident are bad weather and the pilot’s failure to read an instrument correctly.

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2. Errors

According to Helmreich (2000) refer to “any action or inaction leading to deviation from a team or organizational intentions”. Impediments such as stress level, substance use, health, emotions or moods, tiredness, etc. are the roots of errors.

Ex. In 1961, an incident occurred in which Aero Flight 311 crashed near Finland. It was found after a detailed investigation was conducted that both of the pilots were intoxicated.

3. Decision-making

It is the third component. The lives of all those aboard the aircraft depend on the pilot’s decisions throughout the flight. These decisions can sometimes be faulty due to external conditions, lack of training, education, inattention, etc.

Ex. In 1988, there was a fatal accident that occurred called the Ramstein air show disaster. A mid-air collision occurred due to the misjudgement of the pilot while making a manoeuvre. There were fatalities on the ground in addition to the death of people on board.


The crew should be prepared to handle both routine and unforeseen events with abled coordinative and cognitive ability. Effective detection and response to internal and external factors to avoid extreme unsafe aircraft operations need to be focused on. Aviation psychologists can cater to the field by designing and providing adequate mental training to help enhance the crew’s cognitive and personal skills.

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Enhancing Safety Culture

Aviation psychologists can prove to be resourceful by helping reinforce the importance of training and regular safety audits that are carried out in the aviation industry. Supporting staff and employees understand the importance of the procedures, rather than forcing it on employees will help increase the importance that individuals attribute to these processes and the efficiency with which the procedures are conducted.

Pilot training programs involve crew resource management (CRM) training which includes developing seven human factor skills. These are decision making, assertiveness, communication, leadership, adaptability, and situational awareness. Aviation psychologists can work with pilots to develop sessions that help the crew develop these skills.

Optimizing Flight Operations

Checklists and manuals are an essential aspect of any flight and are used before, during and after the flight for carrying out procedures, preventing errors and reducing risks. Aviation psychologists can play a role in designing them. They can apply knowledge, theories, and laws related to attention, perception and information processing to the process of checklist and manual designing. The colour scheme can be modified so that various aspects of the checklist or manual quickly grabs the attention of the pilots. The font needs to be big enough for the pilot to see without any strain, along with adequate placement of text and images to make the checklist meaningful, easy to use and comprehensive. They can play a role in designing cockpits as well. Factors like lighting, size of knobs, etc. can be taken into consideration while designing the cockpit.

Improving Team Dynamics

Lack of coordination, communication, and rapport is a significant reason for crashes due to pilot error. The importance of teamwork, coordination, and division of work in the cockpit is more than emphasized, and steps should be taken towards programs that ensure the development of the same. Psychologists can play a crucial role in crew pairing and training crew to use effective and better communication strategies. Team-building activities can be conducted to enhance the skills and teamwork abilities of pilots and first officers.

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In cases where lack of appropriate equipment or lack of reporting of faulty parts contributed to the air crash, psychologists can help by training crew to be aware, mindful of the aircraft systems at all times and to report any equipment based issues.

Aviation psychology is crucial in today’s rapidly growing aviation industry. An error in a pilot’s judgment or decision can prove to be fatal. These pilots are responsible for more than just their lives, and hence the margin of error decreases significantly. Thus it is essential that changes are brought about in the field, and psychology is included as a necessary part of the field. If pilot errors reduce, the number of disasters that could potentially occur will also decrease significantly.

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