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Flight of the Eyes

By: , Posted on: October 3, 2017

The four most frequent scanning patterns between instruments (SPD = airspeed; ATT = attitude; ALT = altitude; HPG = heading). Top-left: ‘spokes of a wheel’; top-right: ‘small right triangle’; bottom-left: ‘big triangle’; bottom-right: ‘long-and-short horizontal’. Image created by Bo Zhang.

Analysing gaze movements to assess piloting skills

An important aspect of pilot expertise is the effective visual scanning of the flight instruments to monitor the aircraft’s position. The more efficiently this is done, the better able the pilot is to control the aircraft.

Andreas Haslbeck, formerly of the Institute of Ergonomics, Technical University of Munich, Germany, and Bo Zhang from the Centre for Transport Studies, University of Twente, The Netherlands, investigated pilot gaze in a paper published in Elsevier’s journal Applied Ergonomics. They aimed to fill a research gap in the analysis of pilots’ gaze patterns during a difficult flying task. They tested pilots of different levels of practice in order to inform training programmes and future cockpit design.

Studies show that pilot error is a significant contributor to aircraft accidents, with one major study finding that it occurred in one-third of accidents. It is therefore hugely important to target pilot training to optimise the ability to obtain relevant data from flight instruments. This is crucial, especially during the flight phases most vulnerable to accident, such as approach and landing.

In manual flying, the pilot needs to continuously monitor and control six variables, which together describe the positional situation of the aircraft. Three of these variables relate to the location of the aircraft in the air compared to its desired flight path, namely its altitudinal, lateral and longitudinal deviations. The other three variables relate to the attitude of the aircraft, as characterised by its rotation on its three principal axes, namely its pitch, roll and yaw. More expert pilots look at the flight instruments more regularly and for a shorter duration.

For such a highly skilled activity, regular practice is required to improve and maintain skill levels. Pilots on short-haul routes perform many more flights than crews on long-haul ones and therefore have much more practice in approach and landing. As a result, it might be expected that they would maintain higher skill levels than long-haul pilots.

Haslbeck and Zhang employed an eye-tracking device to record the visual scanning techniques of both short-haul and long-haul pilots in a manual approach and landing scenario. They then analysed the scanning patterns based on the predominant saccades: very fast jumps of both eyes from one eye position to another.

They identified several different types of scanning patterns used by the pilots to monitor the flight instruments during the landing task (see image). Of these, they found that the triangular scanning patterns were most effective at providing the pilots with the positional information they needed to best land the aircraft.

Haslbeck and Zhang also identified a clear difference in the scanning patterns employed by the two pilot groups. Most long-haul pilots (68%) used the spokes-of-a wheel scanning pattern, whereas only 12% used one of the more effective triangular patterns. In contrast, short-haul pilots were equally split between these scanning patterns, with 42% adopting each.

Haslbeck believes that the less-effective scanning patterns exhibited by long-haul pilots could be addressed by training that focuses on visual scanning in combination with manual aircraft control. “The results of this research lead to an opportunity for future pilots’ training to better address and teach favourable behavioural patterns according to the situation,” he concludes.

Article details:

Free online until December 31st 2017
Haslbeck, A. and Zhang, B.: “I spy with my little eye: Analysis of airline pilots’ gaze patterns in a manual instrument flight scenario,” Applied Ergonomics (2017)

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