From 2001-2011, the General Aviation (GA) fatal accident rate remained unchanged (Duquette & Dorr, 2014) with an overall stagnant accident rate between 2004 and 2013. The leading cause, loss of control in flight (NTSB, 2015b & 2015c) due to pilot inability to recognize approach to stall/spin conditions (NTSB, 2015b & 2016b). In 2013, there were 1,224 GA accidents in the U.S., accounting for 94% of all U.S. aviation accidents and 90% of all U.S. aviation fatalities that year (NTSB, 2015c). Aviation entails multiple challenges for pilots related to task management, procedural errors, perceptual distortions, and cognitive discrepancies. While machine errors in airplanes have continued to decrease over the years, human error still has not (NTSB, 2013).
A preliminary analysis of a PC-based, Garmin G1000 flight deck was conducted with 3 professional pilots. Analyses revealed increased task load, opportunities for distraction, confusing perceptual ques, and hindered cognitive performance. Complex usage problems were deeply ingrained in the functionality of the system, forcing pilots to use fallible work arounds, add unnecessary steps, and memorize knob turns or button pushes.
Modern computing now has the potential to free GA cockpit designs from knobs, soft keys, or limited display options. Dynamic digital displays might include changes in instrumentation or menu structuring depending on the phase of flight. Airspeed indicators could increase in size to become more salient during landing, simultaneously highlighting pitch angle on Attitude Indicators and automatically decluttering unnecessary information for landing. Likewise, Angle-of-Attack indicators demonstrate a great safety and performance advantage for pilots (Duquette & Dorr, 2014; NTSB, 2015b & 2016b), an instrument typically found in military platforms and now the Icon A5, light-sport aircraft (Icon, 2016).
How does the design of pilots’ environment—the cockpit—further influence their efficiency and effectiveness? To explore the possibilities for small aircraft displays, a participatory design investigation was conducted with 9 qualified instrument pilots. Aviators designed mock cockpits on a PC using pictorial cutouts of analog (e.g., mechanical dials) and digital (e.g., dynamic displays) controls. Data was analyzed qualitatively and compared to similar work. Finally, a template for GA displays was developed based on pilot input.