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‘Massage’ seats proposed for airline pilots.

20/02/2011 1 comment

The modern aircraft cockpit is fully-loaded with all kinds of attention-getting devices: Alarms, buzzers, lights, stick-shakers, etc. Boeing thinks there needs to be a new one: Flight crew seats that vibrate (at various amplitudes and frequencies). (Article on Flight Global) Flying by the seat of your pants may be making a return of sorts…!

Stress vs Performance Curve

Stress vs Performance Curve

Seriously, though, do we really need another means of getting a pilot’s attention? You COULD introduce vibrating seats. You could also introduce neon lights on the cockpit window frames. Or play music from Top Gun in the cockpit if your approach gets too high on energy (on seconds thought, that last one is probably a really bad idea).

Pilots learn in Human Factors about the stress vs performance curve (shown on right). One has to wonder sometimes if cockpit systems designers have ever been introduced to the concept. Too many alerts, which, when multiple sound at once, create another ‘link’ in the accident ‘chain’, pushing crews onto the ‘back-side’ of the stress curve, degrading or eliminating their utility.

Bells, alarms, etc. have their place, but too many create an ‘overload’ situation, and errors become likely. I am presently reading “The Limits of Expertise“, which takes a look at ‘human error’ from a new perspective. In it there are many examples of accidents that could have been avoided if a clearly audible alarm had been heeded. However, the crew was already over-loaded at the time, with an unstable approach, or perhaps some other fault they expected an alarm for, masking the new information.

One of the suggestions of how this new vibrating seat could be used is to enable ATC to activate it. If an aircraft fails to make radio contact when expected, for instance, ATC could activate your seat buzzer, alerting you to… something. Either you forgot to contact ATC or you’re about to fly into the ground, or…

Having different frequencies of vibration MAY alert the crew to a specific issue IF they are familiar and well practiced in sensing the different frequencies, AND if they’re not already on the back side of the stress curve, which given the fact they are being alerted, they probably already are.

If ATC could be given the ability to trigger an alert on a desired aircraft, why make it a vibrating seat? Why not a sort of text message? A chime announcing a message displayed in the cockpit could be more specific and more useful while being less confusing to an over / under stimulated crew.

In conclusion, a vibrating seat ‘alarm’ is a valid idea, but in combination with existing alerts, it’s just as likely to cause confusion and problems as it is to solve them. The use as an ATC triggered alert is a red-herring; If such an idea could be implemented, there are surely better ways of doing it.

Finally, a humourous illustration of my point:

Categories: aerospace, airmanship, crashes