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Pilot decision-making study takes wing

Douglas Wiegmann

Douglas Wiegmann (large image)

Industrial and Systems Engineering Associate Professor Doug Wiegmann is studying how pilots think when their heads are in the clouds—yet their feet are firmly on the ground.

With a new flight simulator and a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Wiegmann hopes to reduce small aircraft accidents due to weather shifts. According to Wiegmann, around 10 percent of general aviation accidents are fatal, and a primary factor in fatal accidents is pilots flying to adverse or deteriorating weather.

“The analysis of weather-related accidents suggests there’s a variety of reasons why a pilot would continue to fly into weather that they’re not qualified to fly in,” says Wiegmann. Reasons range from the pilot being unaware of changing forecasts to misdiagnosing weather changes to knowingly risking inclement conditions.

To study pilots’ decision-making process under dynamic conditions, Wiegmann will invite local private pilots to take a ride in the simulator. They will plot a course and check weather forecasts, just as in a real flight, but during the simulation the weather will change. Through scenario recording, eye-movement tracking and observation during the flight as well as discussion with the pilots after the flight, Wiegmann hopes to understand pilots’ thought processes and develop interventions for helping them fly more safely.

“Part of this is figuring out whether pilots realize they’re taking the risk. Do they realize the weather has changed? That the situation they’re flying into is not what they expected it to be?” asks Wiegmann. “Then, if and when they know what they’re doing, what are their choices? To divert, to go around it, to land and wait for it to pass?”

Wiegmann and two of his graduate students built the simulator by merging top technologies together, from the motion-capable seat to the flat-panel monitors, sound system, computer software and hardware. “We’re taking this technology to the next level with its integration,” says Wiegmann.