In the Aviation Industry we put a lot of trust in instruments. Instruments help us to conduct a safe flight, but instrumentsalso enhance the performance of flightcrews. How did this develop in recent years?
Let’s first look at the history of airplanes with regard to instruments and see how the interface between pilots and airplanes with instruments has developed. Second we look at the present state of how we use instruments and data to enhance present and future performance. Maybe you can translate some of these views into your own workplace.
In the approximate 100 years aviation is old now, aviation has made giant leaps: in 1903 the Wright Flyer, 275KG in weight, completed a flight of 36 meters with a speed of 16KM/H. Usain Bolt almost reaches 45KM/H on the 100mtr sprint! And all this without instruments, just instinct! Today we have the Airbus A380, the biggest commercial passenger airplane, weighing 590.000KG, cruising at around 1000KM/H and built out of 4 million parts.
Instruments have changed from eyeballs and scarfs – when you flew to fast in the Wright Flyer your eyes started to water, flying too slow would hang your scarf loose around your neck – to the advanced glass cockpits we have today.
But the instrumentation in modern day cockpits was had their particulars during recent years. In the 90-ties, I flew airplanes without GPS, depending on radio updates from ground beacons. After a flight into Africa of 7 hours, where very limited radio beacons were present, the navigation display would have a position error. So to circumnavigate Mount Kilimanjaro at night into Kilimanjaro airport for instance, we switched to one of the oldest instruments in the cockpit: the (ground)radar and at clear moonlit nights, our own eyes were pretty effective to! So in these situations the information provided by our instruments could be misleading. Today with GPS coverage around the world, this inaccuracy isn’t present anymore.
But human eyes can be misleading too: a couple of decades ago a DC10 Took off at night and experienced an engine fire on the tail engine. Instruments confirmed this in the cockpit. A call came from the cabin from one of cabin attendants. “The right engine is on fire” the cabin attendant stated. The cockpit crew looked at the information on the engine instruments, but the right engine parameters were all in order. Later it turned out that the cabin attendant had seen the reflections of the fire of the tail engine on the right wing and thought that the right engine was on fire. If the crew would have also shut down the right engine, the DC10’s flightpath would have been endangered because it had lost two engines instead of one. In this situation the instruments were right!
So instruments can be very useful, but the data they provide needs to be verified and put into context. Every team which uses any type of instrument for performance enhancement, needs to realize that instruments provide realtime information, but instruments do not always reflect reality!
In aviation young captains in general are trained to get the best performance out of their team; create an atmosphere that everybody can speak up and have their say to optimize the situation.
To get to the best out of your team, you need Situational Awareness (SAW). SAW has in it that you can work pro-active, see and react to problems before they occur. Pilots don’t like to work re-active, the aim is always to stay always one or two steps ahead of the aircraft.
To get to the highest stage of SAW you go through 3 stages:
- Finding relevant information
- Understand your current state/position on the basis of relevant information
- Make a plan to change to a more optimum situation
Once you activate your plan, new information becomes available and the loop starts all over again.
Data is invaluable in this SAW loop, but only put in to the right context and together with feedback of your team-members!
Context is provided by knowing where you came from, where you are now and where you want to be in a point in the future. When flying to NY it is crucial to know if you departed from San Francisco or Amsterdam, because the courses differ 180 degrees. Sometimes in organizations the CEO says “we go to NY” and everybody scrambles in a different direction… Knowing your departure point is crucial, otherwise your data is not usable, out of context.
- Don’t create instruments to provide data to have instruments that provide data.
- Instruments and data are an aid, but never, ever a goal in itself
- Data can be extremely useful, when put in the right context
- Context means knowing where you came from, where you are, where you’re going
- Humans are the weakest, but also the strongest link in optimizing performance
- So as teamleaders, use instruments and data together with your human capital to get to the highest state of SAW