Work of UB Researcher Designed to Help Pilots Cope With Information Overload During Descents

Release Date: September 14, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Helping pilots deal with the information overload that occurs during the descent of an aircraft -- the phase of flight that is the most difficult to manage -- is the focus of the work of a University at Buffalo psychologist who studies pilots in a laboratory setting.

"Pilots can adapt to almost anything," said Valerie Shalin, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of industrial engineering. "They somehow allocate their attention in an efficient way, but we really don't understand that process well enough to understand the breaking point. We don't really know what it means in a scientific way to be overloaded with information."

In the majority of cases, pilot compensation works, which only serves to obscure the problem. Shalin said that it is only when a tragic accident occurs, such as the crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburgh on Sept. 8 during its landing approach, that pilot information overload receives attention.

Shalin noted that "descents are one of the most difficult phases because that's when the aircraft is at a lower altitude, and traffic is busiest. Also, air-traffic control may tell a pilot to follow one path, but a little later tell him or her to change directions or stay in a holding pattern."

Shalin, whose doctorate is in psychology, is studying pilot information overload, and how pilots interact with aircraft technology, with an eye toward developing cockpit displays that would help pilots to better manage or control their aircraft.

She tests how pilots react to hypothetical flight scenarios using a hardware and software system she developed that tracks electronically how a pilot responds to various challenging situations during descent.

The work involves identifying what kinds of information pilots need, and when they need it, while they are descending from altitudes of 12,000 feet to 5,000 feet.

"We're very interested in understanding and finding ways to assist the cognitive processes going on at this phase of flight," she said.

"There is so much information available you couldn't possibly process it all at once."

Variables tracked by the system include how well pilots control vertical velocity, which has an impact on passenger comfort; how well they maintain control of airspeed; at what point they activate certain systems, and how they respond to changing directions from air-traffic control.

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