FAA ponders human factors

For Maureen Pettitt technology has a human face. As chief scientific and technical adviser for human factors at the Federal Aviation Administration it is her job to make sure that pilots and air traffic controllers easily interact with each other and the systems they use.

Not surprisingly Pettitt's job covers a lot of ground. "It's the software hardware the liveware and the environment around it " Pettitt said. "It's at the interfaces between the people and the automation and the interfaces between the people themselves where you tend to have problems. We research those interfaces and make those work a little better."

George Donohue FAA associate administrator for research and acquisitions said the human factor is one of the most important issues the agency will deal with as it modernizes the national airspace and makes the transition to free flight an FAA initiative that will allow pilots to choose their own routes.

Pettitt seems well-suited for her job and it is not just because of her love of aviation and the people in the industry. She used to own a flight school and an air charter school in California so she knows firsthand what it is like to fly a plane (and skydive for that matter). She also understands industry's perspective of what it takes to run a business.

"I was in general aviation for 14 years " she said. "I have been working with airlines on flight deck research for the last five years so I'm really familiar with the user perspective as well."

Pettitt said the industry still fascinates her because it is constantly changing. "The industry does not stay the same for very long " she asserted. "That's part of the enjoyment of aviation. I know why and how a 747 gets off the ground and I understand the physics but to this day I still love to watch airplanes. It's a fascinating industry. What I'm here to do is to make things more efficient and safer. That's my job."

After 14 years as a business owner Pettitt made the move to academia. She was the head of the aviation administration program at California State University in Los Angeles and later received her doctorate from the Claremont Graduate School. Pettitt proceeded to Western Michigan University where she was involved in research and development and promoting jobs for women and minorities in aviation.

"I got involved in human factors when I did my doctoral work " she explained. "I started looking primarily at the flight deck part of it - interaction between the crew and automated systems between the pilots within the cockpit between pilots and cabin crew and between pilots and air traffic controllers."

Pettitt said she wants her office to be a resource for knowledge expertise and tools for human factors research and applications. "We want to really make sure our research is based on user requirements " she said. "We want to do the right research and do the research right. We'll try and structure the office so we'll have more cross-agency collaborative teams because so much of this research crosses disciplines."

Her group which usually gets involved with a system at the prototype stage focuses on every detail. For example it checks that each icon on a display is immediately apparent to a controller and that the number of key strokes it takes to input data is kept at a minimum. Pilot and controller training and evaluation are also part of the group's responsibilities.

In the future Pettitt's office will focus on free flight which involves a number of new technologies that will change the traditional role of pilot and controller. "We're just now developing the concept of operations for free flight and have someone from our office dedicated to the human factors effort related to that " she said.

Although Pettitt has her student pilot license and has flown solo she hopes to find the time to get a pilot's license that would allow her to fly single-engine planes on her own. It is just a matter of taking the written test again and a matter of time.

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