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Human Factors Psychologist in Aviation

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    John K. Lauber, PhD
    Airbus Industries

    In the 1960s when I was a graduate student at the Laboratory of Comparative and Physiological Psychology at The Ohio State University (OSU), I would never have predicted the career path that I have been fortunate to follow. Although rats, cats and monkeys offered interesting opportunities for research, somewhere along the line I discovered that pilots were even more interesting as subjects, and my professional life has never been the same since!

    My original intent upon entering Bowling Green State University in 1960 was to become an engineer. However, a course in industrial psychology taught by Professor Robert Guion showed me that scientific principles and methods could be used to study human behavior, and my career plans were completely and forever changed. Shortly thereafter, I switched majors and transferred to OSU. Ray Miles guided me during my undergraduate studies and steered me to Don Myer, who headed up the physiological psychology program. Many rats, cats and monkeys later, I entered my final year as a graduate student and realized it was time to make some important career choices.

    I became aware that the field of human factors offered some opportunities. Many large aerospace companies and government laboratories were looking for human factors psychologists to work on various programs funded by the Department of Defense and NASA, then in its halcyon Apollo days. Although the Aviation Psychology Laboratory at OSU had one of the preeminent programs in the country, I had never taken a course in human factors — too busy with rats, cats and monkeys, I guess. In spite of this, I had rekindled a long-smoldering interest in aeronautics and space technology, and I accepted an offer to become a research psychologist at the Naval Training Devices Center in Orlando. In the fall of 1969, my wife Susan (whom I had met in the lab at OSU), my stepdaughter, and I were off to study pilots.

    Although I was worried that my lack of exposure to the human factors world would prove to be a stumbling point, I quickly learned that the fundamentals of experimental design, statistical analysis and report writing applied equally well to my new research setting. One project I was assigned to involved the Lockheed P-3C Orion, still one of the Navy’s front-line antisubmarine warfare aircraft. This project took me often to Moffett Field, Calif., where I discovered that NASA’s Ames Research Center was not in Iowa, a misconception apparently shared by others. On one of my trips, I met Ed Huff, then Chief of the Man-Machine Integration Branch, an organizational name that fails present-day tests for political correctness. I was fascinated by the facilities and the research underway there, made a casual inquiry about the prospects of a job, and was told there were none, much to my disappointment. About a month later, Ed asked if I was really interested in moving to Northern California. I said yes, and in early 1973 began studying pilot performance in a civil aviation setting.

    Those were exciting days: the air-line industry was beginning to recognize that the control and management of human error was critical to improving an already outstanding safety record. Ames had attracted a very bright, creative group of scientists who, with the aid and assistance Pan American and United among other airlines, were able to conduct human performance research using high-fidelity flight simulators supplemented by naturalistic observation of line operations. Many of the ideas now in common use in airline training and operations had their origin in the work of this group with whom I had had the good fortune to become associated.

    In 1985, I was appointed by President Reagan as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Being a Member of the Board gave me an opportunity to help shape national policy in matters having to do with transportation safety. I served two terms on the Safety Board and believe that I was able to help transform the concept of human error accidents from events that someone must be punished for (“blame and train”) to events that challenge systems engineering. Rather than point fingers, we were able to establish that the critical questions were how to design systems — airplanes and air traffic control systems, for instance — in such a way that the occurrence of human error is minimized, and how to mitigate its effects on system safety when it does occur.

    After the end of my second term at the Safety Board, I joined Delta Air Lines as Vice President, Corporate Safety and Compliance. Instead of conducting scientific research or advocating changes in national policy I was faced with the very real problem of putting into practice that which I had been preaching in my earlier careers. But the fundamental challenge was still the same: how to achieve effective human performance in a complex, dynamic, demanding, and sometimes dangerous operational environment. Infusing a corporation the size of Delta with a safety culture that affected the performance of every individual in the company — from the Board Room to the cockpit, cabin, ramp and maintenance hangar — was a psychologist’s dream come true. We were able to put into place a top-notch safety program including a very wide-ranging human factors effort that is paying dividends throughout the organization.

    After just over two years at Delta, I was presented with an opportunity to join Airbus Industrie as vice president, Training and Human Factors. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse because it gave me an opportunity to exercise virtually all of my interests in one job. My primary responsibility is to manage the Miami training center, which supports Airbus customers throughout the Americas. However, I also have broad responsibilities in safety and human factors, working closely with Airbus people in Toulouse, France, the headquarters of Airbus. Effective human performance is critical to safe and efficient operation of our air transportation system, and each of my job functions is concerned in one way or another with achieving such performance. It is a long way from rats, cats, monkeys and Skinner Boxes to pilots and Fly-by-Wire cockpits, but psychology — the study of behavior — spans the entire distance.

    (Originally published in the November/December 1997 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)

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