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Q&A: Dennis Beringer, Kevin Williams: FAA’s Human Factors Scientists

By David Jensen | April 1, 2006
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The Human Factors Research division of FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine, home to a small group of scientists that research and analyze new technologies and human factors, is located within the agency’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center near Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport. This group is part of the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. The division comprises two labs, the Human Factors Research Lab (HFRL), and the Training and Organization Research Lab. Avionics Magazine visited HFRL to learn more about this organization, its structure and resources. We were hosted by two HFRL scientists: Dennis Beringer and Kevin Williams, both research engineering psychologists with Ph.Ds.

Avionics: Who requests your research?

Beringer: We have internal and external sponsors–mostly internal–and they largely would be [FAA] Aircraft Certification and Flight Standards. Aircraft Certification is more likely to come to us with avionics issues. If the issues involve procedures, it may be Flight Standards, particularly for the use of a particular kind of avionics.

Avionics: Your research goes mainly to those two FAA offices?

Beringer: It also goes out to the general scientific community when we publish a report or present it at a meeting and it gets incorporated in public proceedings.

Avionics: Could a request for your expertise come from the administrator?

Beringer: Well, you’ve probably heard about the issues regarding the Mitsubishi MU-2 [which had four fatal crashes in 2004]. A Flight Standardization Board was formed to look into the problem–training issues, the operation of the aircraft. And I was asked to be the human factors adviser to the board. These are the kinds of things in which we often are included. There was a time, in fact, when we were asked to attend accident investigations as part of the [National Transportation Safety Board] human performance team.

Avionics: Do you work with groups outside FAA?

Williams: We work with various standards groups, like RTCA and SAE [Society of Automotive Engineers], as well as with NASA and others.

Beringer: We have representation in many of these committees. While we don’t work directly with manufacturers one-to-one, we often work with them through these committees.

Avionics: What about Mitre and the Volpe Center?

Williams: When I went to Bethel [Alaska] to interview the pilots [for the Capstone project], there were a couple of Volpe researchers, Alan Yost and Eric Nadler, who assisted in the development of the questionnaire and the conduct of the interviews. We also worked with Volpe on a couple of our simulation studies. Indirectly, we’ve also worked with Mitre in the Capstone program.

Avionics: Can avionics manufacturers request a research project?

Beringer: Generally, this is not done. We’re not a resource for the applicants. We’re a resource for FAA.

Williams: We don’t take products and evaluate them.

Beringer: But if [an applicant] thinks we might have some data that bears upon their process or their display or box, they may call us and ask, "What do you know about this?" and we’ll provide whatever information we have.

Avionics: How much direction do you get with a request for research?

Beringer: The sponsor will have certain ideas about the type of information they would like to have and will ask what we can do. But we’re the SMEs [subject matter experts], as far as how to gather the data, analyze it and present it.

Avionics: Fight Standards does have its own research arm, though?

Beringer: They’re in-the-field practitioners, not necessarily experimentalists. They will render an opinion based on their knowledge and experience, whereas we will probably go to the laboratory and collect empirical data. In many cases, there simply isn’t sufficient time to put together a laboratory study to look at something. There are decisions that Flight Standards, for example, will have to make in a short period of time, and that’s where these [practitioners] are very valuable because they are in the operational environment within the organization.

Williams: But we can still temper their decisions, based on our experience, because we are science practitioners. We provide a perspective that I think the agency needs.

Beringer: I think it should be pointed out that we are in almost constant communication with the people in the field. In fact, I’m a member of the Human Factors Coordinating Team for AVS [aviation safety].

Avionics: Does your research contribute to operational credit approval?

Beringer: Yes, I just had a discussion with some Flight Standards people in Washington, D.C., about synthetic vision and operational credit because obviously there are some users who would like to receive credit for certain installations and be able to fly to lower minimums. I’ve been requested by a group in Flight Standards to be involved in some of the evaluations [of synthetic vision technologies]. Now whether we end up doing any experiments or doing anything in the simulator and lab, we don’t know yet.

Williams: The Capstone folks broached this issue [of lower minimums] also, because they have these new Chelton flight displays and WAAS [Wide Area Augmentation System] -capable GPS systems.

Avionics: What have you done for the Capstone project?

Williams: We performed some feasibility studies, in addition to the interviews of Capstone pilots. We collected information about how closely the pilots track the GPS signals, compared to traditional VORs, for instance. Usually we found that they could track very well, within a tenth of a mile. I think it helped them make their decision to lower their minimums.

We looked at their use of the terrain display, the color-coded terrain. When we went up to interview the pilots, we asked whether they were more prone to take chances because they had these [Capstone terrain] displays in their aircraft. A lot of them actually admitted that they did. They felt more confident in worse weather conditions.

Avionics: Is this a good thing?

Williams: Not necessarily. But I hear anecdotal stories from pilots who said they would try to be cautious, but still got caught in certain types of weather conditions, which happen quite often in Alaska. The weather can change rapidly. But they also said that because they have the [Garmin] MX-20 available, they hadn’t any problems working through the weather. We reported what we heard to the Capstone office and others involved in the decision making. When you talk to pilots, it’s not like conducting a study in a laboratory, so you recognize that what you say is not scientific, and we certainly reinforced that idea when we shared the information.

Avionics: I noticed your cockpit simulators look like general aviation aircraft.

Beringer: Our primary charter is to look at GA [general aviation]. It’s the way things developed when we acquired the first simulator, the BGARS [basic general aviation research simulator]. We can respond to any questions from any sponsors, but historically our research has been for GA.

Avionics: Any research for air transport?

Beringer: We can, and we will be working on some Part 135 and Part 121 issues for the Transport Aircraft Directorate over the next six months. And we have access to the Boeing 737 simulator down the street, where we can do transport-level research.

Avionics: Who makes up your staff?

Beringer: In the Aerospace Human Factors Research Division, we have 17 principal investigators with Ph.Ds. We’re called engineering psychologists, but first and foremost, we’re behavioral scientists. Our three activities are behavioral stress, vision and flight crew performance.

Avionics: Are you pilots?

Beringer: Kevin and I are both pilots. We’re not just psychologists. We have operational expertise, as well as evaluative expertise. We evaluate pilot performance in various kinds of avionics systems.

Avionics: Do you also use outside pilots?

Beringer: Yes, we can get them at OU [Oklahoma University]. There are several FBOs [fixed-base operators] in the area, also the Oklahoma Pilots Association and the Ninety-Nines [international organization of women pilots, headquartered in Oklahoma City].

Williams: We have a database of local pilots, several hundred.

Beringer: We had, for a study on display imagery, a nice age range for one project, 19 to 57 years of age. The total VFR pilot-in-command time ranged from 11 hours to 11,000 hours, the latter being a flight inspection guy.

Avionics: Besides BGARS, what are your resources?

Williams: We have a helicopter simulator, we have AGARS, or advanced general aviation research simulator, and we’re constructing an unmanned aircraft simulator. It’s a very hot topic in the FAA.

Avionics: What is the status of the unmanned air vehicle (UAV) simulator?

Williams: It is largely functional. We have a four-axis sidearm control and two displays, and we can now fly that as though it is a UAV, or UAS [unmanned aircraft system].

Avionics: Have you started work with the UAV simulator?

Williams: We’re awaiting requirements from FAA’s R&D folks. We haven’t run any studies. We are close to getting something going. The first thing we want to do is look at pilot decision making. Dennis and Jerry [Ball, research assistant] have recently completed some weather studies, looking at different types of weather displays and how those affect pilot decision making. We’re going to use the same type of protocol, except in an unmanned aircraft environment.

Avionics: Will you study whether UAV operators need pilot’s licenses?

Williams: We have discussed both pilot qualifications and medical qualifications. Do UAV pilots have to have manned aircraft experience, and what kind of medical certification is required? People from the military, government and industry had a discussion here regarding those questions. We passed recommendations on to the agency’s program office for unmanned aircraft systems, which just got started [in December 2005]. [FAA has] had working groups on these issues for at least two years but just now started a program office.

Avionics: Would you recommend pilot’s licenses or not?

Williams: I went back to literature in the 1970s, and early studies show that the pilots don’t need a manned aircraft pilot certificate and that they can perform well without it. I haven’t reached a final recommendation, but I’m leaning towards that they don’t need a pilot’s certificate. They’re going to need some pilot-like training, but they don’t necessarily have to have flown a manned aircraft. The control systems, for some, are drastically different anyway.

Avionics: Will you make recommendations for UAV operator training?

Williams: Well, actually, I’ve been asked as a project for next year to start developing test standards for unmanned aircraft pilots. We’re looking at all the different types of training that might be required. Right now, I’m reviewing the different control architectures, how many different ways these aircraft are controlled. Before you talk about training, you look at how you fly UAVs, and that will determine what interface to use.

Avionics: What about a UAV operator’s medical requirements?

Williams: Originally, it was recommended that a Class III medical would be good enough for the pilot, but that’s been changed to a Class II. The reasoning mainly was that all of these systems [UAVs] will be flown in a commercial application–it’s not private–and commercial pilots are required, as a minimum, to have a Class II medical.

In our meeting here, it was [initially] decided that a Class III medical probably would be adequate, except for the vision requirement, because Class III only requires 20/40, with aids, but Class II requires 20/20. Especially with these systems flown line of sight, it is important to have good vision.

Avionics: What other projects are you working on?

Beringer: There’s current interest in the Chelton display, the MX-20 [multifunction display] and the Nomad retinal scan display.

Tom [Chidester], our branch manager, is working on a voluntary aviation system information-sharing project, which brings aviation safety information together on a voluntary basis. This is in the setup stage. Another project involves weather callbacks [from pilots], in which, using a database, we’re looking at which weather factors are most significant in general aviation accidents. This is what we did for Flight Standards, [to study] how pilots use weather information.

We’re looking at read-back errors, a pilot/ATC [air traffic control] communications issue. How often do pilots read things back incorrectly and how often do air traffic controllers catch them? Another issue that came up is pilot language proficiency because, although English is the international standard, a lot of people use English as a second language, so there have been cases where communications have been a problem. We’re examining how often that occurs.

Also we’re working on ASI [aviation safety inspector] training for the new technically advanced aircraft, so inspectors have a good selection of tools when they have to certify new advanced aircraft with glass cockpits. Yet another effort is the designated pilot examiner [DPE] project. [Flight Standards] is looking at improving the DPE program. It’s an attempt to increase standardization. We’re also looking at color vision and the effects of hypoxia. Hypoxia degrades your cognitive performance; now the question is does it degrade your vision.

Avionics: Please tell us about the retinal scan display.

Beringer: Retinal scan is something the vertical flight people are interested in. They believe it would be useful to provide guidance into helipads in congested metropolitan areas, where you have a lot of obstacles.

The combiner [monocle display] shows the image to the right eye. It could show anything you want. For example, it can show perspective terrain to the pilot, similar to a head-up display. It’s a synthetic view from a database. We will see how we can increase pilot situational awareness during difficult approaches.

We don’t have a research effort that involves head-mounted devices at this point in time. What we have is something proposed for the out years that may be moved into this fiscal year to be examined. We don’t have it yet. We’re in the preparation stage.

Avionics: Do you do other work with synthetic vision?

Beringer: For [Aircraft] Certification, we looked at two questions: First, in unusual attitudes, does having this terrain depicted behind your attitude indicator cause any problems with interpretation–in other words, are you less likely to recover? The second question was, can we look at these displays to determine whether or not they present an equivalent level of safety? The criterion [for certification] is that it can’t be worse than displays without the synthetic vision. We’re trying to present a method by which applicants, companies that make synthetic vision displays, can evaluate their own technology and present the FAA with data and say, "We did this procedure to determine if there is an equivalent level of safety." They can then incorporate the procedure into their human factors evaluation plan.

Avionics: What comparisons did you make regarding maneuvers for unusual attitudes?

Beringer: We looked at various formats of displays, and we introduced guidance cues to see if it took away ambiguities. The baseline display is strictly an EADI [electronic attitude director indicator]. Then we used a [terrain] display with uniformly brown terrain and one with a full-color rendition, with greens and tans and browns. We also included arrows on the display to show how to get up to the horizon line.

Williams: We have the display on the AGARS, and we looked at the pilots’ response time. That is, we would have them look up from a visor, we’d say `go,’ and then they would initiate recovery.

Beringer: We also looked at the terrain horizon at roll-out [from the recovery], and we looked at the aircraft’s attitude at the recovery’s onset. We had one trial where we [flew aircraft] close to Sandia Peak, near Albuquerque.

Avionics: What data did you collect?

Beringer: We looked at digital data in conjunction with visual data. We recorded [the recoveries] on DVD, so we have pictures of the cockpit.

Avionics: What did your study find?

Beringer: We didn’t see any systematic effects and found no difference [in pilot response] between any of the displays, whether the displays were brown or colored or whether or not there were recovery arrows. Recovery times all fell between eight and 10 seconds.

So if someone comes to [Aircraft Certification] with a terrain display fitting into one of the categories that we looked at, they can know that we have demonstrated that it appears to have an equivalent level of safety for attitude recovery. We showed not only equivalency but also some improvement in performance.

Avionics: What, from this research, did you give Aircraft Certification?

Beringer: We produced an Office of Aviation Medicine technical report. It was about 10 to 12 pages in a double-column format and in somewhat small type. They want a document that they can go back to and say, "This is our reference point."

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