As is apparent from the foregoing discussions, a recurring theme in NASA’s human factors research has been its dedication to improving aviation safety. The Agency’s many human factors research initiatives have contributed to such safety issues as crash survival, weather knowledge and information, improved cockpit systems and displays, security, management of air traffic, and aircraft control.
Though NASA’s involvement with aviation safety has been an important focus of its research activities since its earliest days, this involvement was formalized in 1997. In response to a report by the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, NASA created its Aviation Safety Program (AvSP). As NASA’s primary safety program, AvSP dedicated itself and $500 million to researching and developing technologies that would reduce the fatal aircraft accident rate 80 percent by 2007.
In pursuit of this goal, NASA researchers at Langley, Ames, Dryden, and Glenn Research Centers teamed with the FAA, DOD, the aviation industry, and various aviation employee groups—including the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Allied Pilots Association (APA), Air Transport Association (ATA), and National Air Traffic Controllers Association
(NATCA)—to form the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) in 1998. The purpose of this all-inclusive consortium was to develop an integrated and data-driven strategy to make commercial aviation safer.
As highlighted by the White House Commission report, statistics had shown that the overwhelming majority of the aviation accidents and fatalities in previous years had been caused by human error—specifically, loss of control in flight and so-called controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). NASA—along with the FAA, DOD, the aviation industry, and human factors experts—had previously formed a National Aviation Human Factors Plan to develop strategies to decrease these human- caused mishaps. Consequently, NASA joined with the FAA and DOD to further develop a human performance research plan, based on the NASA-FAA publication Toward a Safer 21st Century—Aviation Safety Research Baseline and Future Challenges. The new AvSP thus incorporated many of the existing human factors initiatives, such as crew fatigue, resource management, and training. Human factors concerns were also emphasized by the program’s focus on developing more sophisticated human-assisting aviation technology.
To accomplish its goals, AvSP focused not only on preventing accidents, but also minimizing injuries and loss of life when they did occur. The program also emphasized collection of data to find and address problems. The comprehensive nature of AvSP is beyond the scope of this case study, but some aspects of the program (which, in 2005, became the Aviation Safety & Security Program, or AvSSP) with the greatest human factors implications include accident mitigation, synthetic vision systems, system wide accident prevention, and aviation system monitoring and modeling.
• Accident mitigation: The goal of this research is to find ways to make accidents more survivable to aircraft
occupants. This includes a range of activities, some of which have been discussed, to include impact tests, inflight and postimpact fire prevention studies, improved restraint systems, and the creation of airframes better able to withstand crashes.
• Synthetic vision systems: Unrestricted vision is vital for a pilot’s situational awareness and essential for him to control his aircraft safely. Limited visibility contributes to more fatal air accidents than any other single factor; since 1990, more than 1,750 deaths have been attributed to CFIT—crashing into the ground—not to mention numerous runway incursion accidents that have taken even more lives.
• The traditional approach to this problem has been the development of sensor-based enhanced vision systems to improve pilot awareness. In 2000, however, NASA Langley researchers initiated a different approach. They began developing cockpit displays, termed Synthetic Vision Systems, which incorporate such technologies as Global Positioning System (GPS) and photo-realistic terrain databases to allow pilots to "see” a synthetically derived 3-D digital reproduction of what is outside the cockpit, regardless of the meteorological visibility. Even in zero visibility, these systems allow pilots to synthetically visualize runways and ground obstacles in their path. At the same time, this reduces their workload and decreases the disorientation they experience during low – visibility flying. Such systems would be useful in avoiding CFIT crashes, loss of aircraft control, and approach and landing errors that can occur amid low visibility. Such technology could also be of use in decreasing the risk of runway incursions. For example, the Taxiway
Navigation and Situation Awareness System (T-NASA) was developed to help pilots taxiing in conditions of decreased visibility to "see” what is in front of them. This system allows them to visualize the runway by presenting them with a head-up display (HUD) of a computergenerated representation of the taxi route ahead of them.
• One of the most important synthetic vision systems initiatives arose from the Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE) program, which NASA formed in the mid-1990s to help revitalize the lagging general-aviation industry. NASA joined with the FAA and some 80 industry members, in part to develop an affordable Highway in the Sky (HITS) cockpit display that would enhance safety and pilot situational awareness. In 2000, such a system was installed and demonstrated in a small production aircraft. Today, nearly every aviation manufacturer has a Synthetic Vision System either in use or in the planning stages.
• System wide accident prevention: This research, which focuses on the human causes of accidents, is involved with improving the training of aviation professionals and in developing models that would help predict human error before it occurs. Many of the programs addressing this issue were discussed earlier in greater detail.
• Aviation system monitoring and modeling (ASMM) project: This program, which was in existence from 1999 to 2005, involved helping personnel in the aviation industry to preemptively identify aviation system risk. This included using data collection and improved monitoring of equipment to predict problems before they occur. One important element of the ASMM project is the Aviation Performance Measuring System (APMS). In 1995, NASA and the FAA coordinated with the airlines to develop this program, which utilizes large amounts of information taken from flight data recorders to improve flight safety. The techniques developed are designed to use the data collected to formulate a situational awareness feedback process that improves flight performance and safety.
• Yet another spinoff of ASMM is the National Aviation Operational Monitoring Service (NAOMS). This systemwide survey mechanism serves to quantitatively assess the safety of the National Airspace System and evaluate the effects of technologies and procedures introduced into the system. It uses input from pilots, controllers, mechanics, technicians, and flight attendants. NAOMS therefore serves to assess flight safety risks and the effectiveness of initiatives to decrease these risks. APMS impacts air carrier operations by making routine monitoring of flight data possible, which in turn can allow evaluators to identify risks and develop changes that will improve quality and safety of air operations.
• A similar program originating from ASMM is the Performance Data Analysis and Report and System (PDARS). This joint FAA-NASA initiative provides a
way to monitor daily operations in the NAS and to evaluate the effectiveness of air traffic control (ATC) services. This innovative system, which provides daily analysis of huge volumes of real-time information, including radar flight tracks, has been instituted throughout the continental U. S.136
The highly successful AvSP ended in 2005, when it became the Aviation Safety & Security Program. AvSSP exceeded its target goal of reducing aircraft fatalities 80 percent by 2007. In 2008, NASA shared with the other members of CAST the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy for its role in helping produce "the safest commercial aviation system in the world.”137 AvSSP continues to move forward with its goal of identifying and developing by 2016 "tools, methods, and technologies for improving overall aircraft safety of new and legacy vehicles operating in the Next Generation Air Transportation System.”138 NASA estimates that the combined efforts of the ongoing safety-oriented programs it has initiated or in which it has participated will decrease general-aviation fatalities by as much as another 90 percent from today’s levels over the next 10-15 years.139