Human Factors in Air Show Flying

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In one scene of the latest “Star Trek” film, James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) must prove that Spock (Zachary Quinto) is emotionally unfit to command their star ship, the Enterprise. The coolly logical Vulcan insists he’s fine, but after all, he has just watched his home planet collapse into a black hole. 

Moral for the air show industry: if a pilot’s world is falling apart, it might not be a good day to fly…but the pilot might need some convincing. 

The struggle for command of the Enterprise out among the stars might seem light years from the air show flight line, but this bit of science fiction illustrates some of the factual points experts make about emotional stress and other factors that affect a pilot’s ability to perform, especially at the edges of the safety envelop where air show pilots fly. 

There’s nothing especially mysterious these days about human factors in air safety. The aviation industry has studied it intensely in recent decades after years of accident data showed that most mishaps are caused by human errors, not mechanical failure. “Crew resource management” has become a popular term for the practice of managing human factors on the flight deck. 

Human factors isn’t a term you hear often in sport aviation or the air show industry. But many of the principles developed for the military and the airlines apply just as well, say aviation safety professionals interviewed for this story. And they’re just as important, especially in a small industry where the air show producer, air boss, crew chief – if a pilot has one – and volunteers essentially form an extended crew. 

There’s little debate within the air show community that the obvious physiological requirements – food, water, sleep – are things the pilots are equipped to deal with. Likewise, air show event organizers can help a pilot focus on giving his best performance by attending to logistical details.  

Flying a small aerobatic plane cross country from one air show to the next can be tiring, said Tim Decker, who has been flying his Pitts S-2B to air shows for five years and just retired from a 20-year Air Force career. Once at the show site, he said, a pilot shouldn’t have to search the airport for logistical needs. 

“Most performers like me require hangar space, gas and oil. Some air shows are very organized… [but at] some air shows you park and nobody seems to know what’s going on. It can take hours,” to sort out the details, he said. 

Retired Air Canada 767 captain Bill Carter has been flying air shows for more than 20 years. He said he tries to arrive at the show site a day early to make sure he has enough time to get organized. “If the show’s Saturday and Sunday, I try to get in Thursday,” he said. 

When he arrives, Carter’s first order of business is to find out where to hangar his airplane, where the smoke oil is, whether he will be able to drive his rental car onto the field, where his hotel is, and what’s expected of him by the local news media. He said he takes care of these details early so he will have time to rest, practice, and focus on his performance. 

“The more experienced guys who have been doing this for ten or 20 years tend to be more disciplined about it,” Decker said. “I would encourage younger guys to look for a good role model.” 

That discipline is also important when it comes to receptions and parties, Decker said. Organizers often want pilots at parties and receptions to please sponsors. The social scene can be tempting, but pilots need to limit their fun. “Fatigue and dehydration are the two biggest things I think about with guys who party excessively before the show,” Decker said. 

But not every stressor responds to a water bottle, a drum of smoke oil or a good night’s sleep. Domestic problems, business issues, or psychological distractions can be considerably harder to address in real time and in the air show environment. 

Gary Rower, a former Air Force F-16 pilot and airline captain who flies a Boeing Stearman at air shows, teaches human factors as an aviation safety consultant to corporate and charter pilots. He says pilots are affected by their emotional climate – what’s happening around them at the show – business pressures and personal morale. 

Failing to get air show bookings, not getting paid, losing a sponsorship and partnership or team issues are examples of business pressures. Personal morale can include marital or family problems or the death of a loved one. 

“We know it’s out there,” Rower said. “We don’t like to talk about it because saying that you’re a little stressed out is like saying that you’re not bulletproof. You’re not invulnerable to having life interfere with your flying. We’re a little too Type A personality to admit that those things actually occur to us. But they’re there.” 

Of course, air show flying is all about pressure. And pilot performance actually improves under pressure, according to Dr. Jerome Berlin, a noted aviation psychologist who developed a graph known as the pressure-performance curve. But there’s a limit, and Berlin, who also flew fighter jets with the Israeli Air Force, said pilot performance drops off dangerously past the peak of the curve. 

Yet performing near the peak is part of the job for air show pilot, Berlin said. “People come (to air shows) to see danger. They come to see something different…something extraordinary.  That’s why people come to air shows, and that’s why air show pilots like to perform, because they’re performing at the edge of the envelope.” 

Words Berlin uses to describe a pilot at peak performance include decisive, strained, focused, tense and determined. But — at that point — it doesn’t take much more pressure to push a pilot past the peak, where Berlin said a pilot’s behavior becomes inappropriate, disconnected, bewildered, muddled, disorganized and over-reactive. “Once you go over that (edge,) there’s very little chance of getting out of it,” Berlin said. “It’s like a mental graveyard spiral.” 

All of the pressure doesn’t come from the flying itself. In fact, it’s only one of many factors, Berlin said. “Going up and down that (pressure-performance) scale has as much to do with a person’s private life as it does with his public life,” he said. A serious fight with a spouse could put a pilot “way up” on the scale before he or she even leaves the ground, Berlin said. 

What makes it all the more dangerous is that pilots are notoriously poor judges of themselves. “Pilots tend to be the most acute observers of what’s going on outside of them, but when it comes to looking inside to see what they’re experiencing, what they’re really feeling, they’re terribly cynical and very critical. They don’t like to look inside,” Berlin said. 

Some military forces have self-assessment checklists to help a pilot judge his or her fitness to fly. ICAS’s Safety Management System Development Committee put together a similar checklist for air show pilots. A death in the family, business troubles and a brewing divorce are among the factors a pilot needs to consider. If the points add up to a large number, it’s time for the pilot to consider moderating his act – or, in the worst case, perhaps not flying at all. 

Carter, who was the first Canadian Aerobatic Competency Evaluator under the ICAS ACE program, said a pilot who doesn’t feel quite up to par shouldn’t worry about backing his routine off a notch. After all, few people in an air show crowd are aerobatic judges. “Nobody knows the difference when you take a maneuver out,” he said. 

Often the hardest step is for the pilot to admit a problem exists. It helps to admit it to someone else. 

Rower said he offers this analogy to corporate clients: “If you and I are taking the Citation 10 to Los Angeles today to take the boss or whatever, if my kid was sick all night I need to let you know, ‘Hey, I’m not 100 percent today because of things going on in my life.’ ” 

Does that mean the pilot can’t do the job? Not necessarily, but by admitting to some stress, the pilot alerts others to pay closer attention. Rower adds, “Just the fact that you’ve shared it with someone else reduces your own stress.” 

In the air show pilot’s world, that communication might need to be with the air boss, crew chief, or someone else close to the pilot. In other words, confide in someone you trust. That reduces the stress and it makes it safer for everybody. 

Unfortunately, the pilot may be the last one to know he or she has a problem. Berlin said it’s important for people close to a pilot who see a problem to help him or her recognize and acknowledge it – which might not be easy. “Good pilots tend to be high authority people. They tend to be ego strong, they know what they’re doing, and they don’t take advice very well,” he said. 

Berlin teaches a five-step process for getting a pilot to recognize a problem. It was developed for flight crews, but Berlin said he even teaches it to pilots’ families. 

•Step One: Get attention. Address the pilot and look for eye contact or a verbal response. 

•Step Two: Express a concern or a feeling. “Say, ‘captain, I’m worried.’ Or, captain, I have a concern,’ said Berlin, using airline parlance. “The reason for this is pilots love to contradict you, and they can’t contradict you when you’re expressing a feeling.” 

•Step Three: State the problem. 

•Step Four: Offer a solution. “Don’t tell them what you’re going to do, but offer them a solution,” Berlin said. 

•Step Five: Obtain the pilot’s agreement through a verbal or physical response. 

Some of the best advice might be what grown-ups chanted at us when they were teaching us to cross the street: Stop, look and listen. That’s essentially what Carter said he does at an air show. “Be aware of your attention: where it is, where it isn’t,” he said. “Periodically stop and ask yourself, is there something we’re not aware of that can bite us?’ ’’

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Tim Gaffney is a former newspaper reporter and current director of communications for the National Aviation Heritage Alliance based in Dayton, Ohio.