• A Swinburne student in a glass cockpit Piper Warrior. (Swinburne)
    A Swinburne student in a glass cockpit Piper Warrior. (Swinburne)

Defence Science Institute (DSI) has commissioned two Melbourne universities to probe pilot behaviour when switching between aircraft with different instrument sets.

Swinburne University of Technology and University of Melbourne will investigate the human factors involved when pilots who have been trained on glass cockpits are confronted with analogue instruments in the real world.

“Today most student pilots are trained on modern flight simulators and trainers, which use the advanced digital arrays seen in modern jetliners,” Head of Swinburne’s Aviation Simulation Laboratory, Dr David Newman, said.

“Then they get out in the real world and may find themselves at the controls of an elderly aircraft equipped with yesterday’s instrumentation, which demands a rather different set of flying skills.” 

Experience shows that pilots who have trained on analogue instruments find it easy to become accustomed to the digital cockpit, but when the situation is reversed, the extra mental load going from digital to analogue can cause problems.

“Pilots using the old instrument array scan all their instruments constantly in a highly disciplined sequence and create a constant mental picture of what the aircraft is doing, where it is, its speed, height, engine performance and so on, from what the instruments tell them,” Newman said.

“They update this mental model constantly by referring back to the instruments. But the modern digital read-out does a lot of this computing for the pilot. In place of dozens of different dials and clocks, there are just one or two main screens backed by a computer that compiles, analyses and presents the most essential and relevant flight information.

“It makes flying much simpler and less stressful. But if you’ve trained in a glass (digital) cockpit, you may have a completely different form of situational awareness and instrument procedure to deal with an environment that is constantly changing.”

Volunteer pilots are being tested at Swinburne in flight simulators capable of switching between analogue and digital instruments. They are hooked-up to eye-tracking technology that shows the researchers where the subject is focusing attention. Comparisons in the scan are then made between pilots trained either panel.

According to Newman, the size of the challenge varies between individuals.

“We’re working at the interface of human and machine, and it isn’t as neat and predictable as we’d sometimes like to imagine,” he said. “It is throwing new light on how different pilots cope with this change.”

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