Helicopter human factors in focus

Helicopter Human Factors is the title of a chapter by Sandra G. Hart in a book called Human Factors in Aviation written way back in 1988. It begins with an interesting statement:

For no other vehicle is the need for human factors research more critical, or more difficult.

Sandra G. Hart

That’s a bold assertion that I had never heard anyone make before and consequently had never given much consideration to whether or not it might be the case. So let’s unpack that proposition a little by looking at the arguments that the author offers to back it up:

She notes the following characteristics of helicopter aviation that make the human factors challenges uniquely demanding:

  1. Helicopters operate in a wide variety of operational environments extending from
    the civil air traffic control system to remote and hazardous areas overland, and far out to sea.
  2. Helicopters operate in a broad range of flight conditions including low visibility marginal VFR, night VFR, NVD enhanced VFR all the way to full IFR.
  3. Helicopters have a unique breadth of flight profiles with missions ranging from scheduled passenger services to search and rescue, medevac, construction, agriculture, law enforcement, fire-fighting, and military missions.
  4. Operational procedures, airspace, and air traffic control are designed for fixed-wing rather than rotary-wing aircraft, often without consideration of the implications on helicopter capabilities, flight profiles, and limitations.
  5. Helicopters can move in any direction, remain stationary while airborne, climb and descend vertically, and take off and land almost anywhere making their range of manoeuvres and control requirements much more significant than most fixed-wing aircraft.
  6. Helicopters often operate at very low altitudes, creating increased terrain avoidance, flight path control, and navigational visual demands on the pilots.
  7. Helicopters are inherently unstable without automatic flight control systems, which impose significant perceptual and motor demands.
  8. Helicopters have increased increased physiological demands in flight. Cockpit noise, vibration, heat, seating position, and postural demands when holding references are a few examples of these which helicopter pilots have to contend with.
  9. Although recent improvements in sensors, displays, controls, and avionics have offset some of the above factors, they have been accompanied by additional requirements to perform increasingly demanding tasks in more dangerous environments, creating further human factors challenges for designers and pilots.

I might add to her list a tenth significant characteristic of human factors in multi-crew helicopters which she doesn’t touch upon:

10. The unique teamwork dynamic of pilot and technical crew – and sometimes even ground-crew – co-operation, which includes a more flexible operational leadership and responsibility for aircraft control.

All of the above widen the demand for cognitive flexibility, decision-making, workload management, communication and team-behaviours already accepted and recognised in other walks of aviation. It is a not inconsiderable list, and it makes a convincing case for the criticality of human factors in rotary wing aviation.

Hart concludes her 1988 review of the characteristics of helicopter operations by noting that ‘helicopter human factors has received only limited attention by government [agencies], users, and manufacturers.’ In many aspects this is still the case 35 years later.

  • There is not a very large body of literature that directly considers the human factors specific to the challenges helicopter operations.
  • Training and checking regulations still have a relentlessly fixed-wing focus and provenance.
  • CRM training does not require or even reference the need for consideration of helicopter specific differences.

Despite plenty of hand-wringing in recent years about helicopter accident rates, in particular in operations such as HEMS which typify and distill many of the human factors challenges characteristic of helicopters noted above, the industry and regulatory response has focused in large part on technical progress in areas such as stabilisation, and automation of flight path management. Is it time to shine a more rotary wing shaped light on to rotary wing shaped problems?

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