Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | Features

Reaching for the Skies

By Tina Owen
High-flying engineering students help bridge the gap between humans and technology.
Boeing jet simulator Students, aviation industry experts, and researchers use the Boeing jet simulator at the UI's Operator Performance Laboratory to help make flying safer for everyone.

In 1903, when Wilbur and Orville Wright took that great leap of faith off the sands of North Carolina's Kitty Hawk beach, aviation technology was barely past the crawling stage. If the Wrights' plane was a rickety, bare-bones affair, early versions of a flight simulator were just as rudimentary. While the trainee pilot sat in a half barrel mounted on a plank, helpers at each end rocked the plank back and forth to simulate the pitch and roll of an airplane.

Since then, aviation technology has soared to heights that the Wrights probably could not have envisioned. In today's crowded skies, commercial planes wing across the globe in hours, delivering hundreds of thousands of passengers to cities in every nation. An array of technologyradar screens, air traffic control systems, autopilot devices, and collision avoidance systems—bombards pilots with information that often requires split-second reactions and decisions.

Yet, even with all these remarkable transformations, the pioneering Wright brothers would be amazed by what goes on behind a nondescript white door at the Iowa City Municipal Airport. There lurks one of the University of Iowa's most unusual teaching aids—a B737-800 series flight simulator. Part of the College of Engineering's Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL) in the Center for Computer Aided Design, the Boeing jet simulator gives researchers and other experts the opportunity to develop and test new theories and products that can further revolutionize the aviation industry.

This past fall, the simulator also helped expand the knowledge of engineering students in a new advanced level class designed by Associate Professor Tom Schnell, who directs the OPL. "Human Factors in Aviation," which builds upon the work carried out in the lab, addresses one of the fundamental problems in the fast-evolving field of aviation technology: that the humans behind the controls are Stone Age creatures in an era of supersonic flight. "Humans are an old design; physiologically and cognitively, we haven't changed much in thousands of years. We're optimized for a ground-based existence. We need technology to provide us with the information for a safe and effective flight," says Schnell, an avid aviator and experienced pilot. "The first few pilots could pretty much keep up because flying was as slow as driving an average car. But ever since World War Two, things have gotten much faster."

The problem is that we lack the necessary vision, spatial awareness, and other physiological capabilities to keep up with the demands of modern flight. Our eyes can't easily detect and track an opposing plane closing at 1,200 miles per hour. Our response speeds are often a crucial split second too slow. "Put humans in the air and there's a problem with acceleration," explains Schnell. "Put an aircraft into a steep bank and, without instruments, you can no longer tell which way is down."

Such loss of spatial awareness caused the plane crash in 1999 that killed John F. Kennedy, Jr. During the course of the semester, Schnell's students analyze several airplane crashes to determine their causes. Statistically speaking, flying is the safest form of travel, yet when things go wrong, they often do so in spectacular, headline-making fashion. "There are few other technical areas where the consequences of poor design and inappropriate human performance have such a large impact," says Schnell.

Professor Tom Schnell In the realistic Boeing jet simulator, Associate Professor Tom Schnell (right) and students (l-r) Mike Keller, Nick Lorch, and Justin Regenwether discuss the ergonomic factors that affect humans' ability to fly planes.

Students in "Human Factors in Aviation" look at ways of closing that gap between humans' limitations and technology's dizzying possibilities. If it's not possible to improve human design, then how can engineers make cockpits as user-friendly as possible? How can they design buttons that are easy to push and labels that can be read when air turbulence turns the plane into a bumpy rollercoaster ride, or a warning signal that's loud enough to be heard over the cockpit noise when the autopilot system has been switched off? And, when they build those systems, how do engineers take into account human factors such as physical and cognitive limitations?

For first-hand experience of the issues that pilots face, students turn to the simulator. Like an enormous egg with squared-off corners, the glossy white simulator squats on legs several feet above the concrete floor of a large aircraft hangar. Most of the senior or graduate students in the class—eight men, one woman—either have experience flying or working on planes or plan to enter a career in aviation engineering. Five work at the OPL and are familiar with the simulator. For the others, it's quite a revelation. Once they've climbed the few metal steps leading up to it, students squeeze into the close quarters of an actual-sized Boeing cockpit, complete with an authentic and overwhelming array of dials, buttons, switches, monitors, screens, and flashing lights that provide vital information such as air speed, altitude, and global position.

As soon as the professor flips a switch, the ocean-like roar of air travel rushes into the cockpit. Blue sky and a rolling green and brown landscape appear in the curved window display. When Schnell maneuvers the controls to "bank" the plane, the landscape slides out of view in a nauseating rush.

Through such hands-on experience, students also realize that the obvious answer to avoiding human error isn't as simple as it appears. "Modern airliners are flown primarily using automation," explains Schnell, "with pilots acting as supervisory controllers." But, while automated systems are vital, a whole new set of problems emerges when aircrews become overly dependent on technology. Schnell cites instances of crashes or near-misses that occurred because the crew mistakenly thought the autopilot was engaged.

Different manufacturers take different approaches to the levels of automation in a plane's cockpit. Some flight-deck packages support the pilot as the ultimate decision-maker; others give more control to the systems, allowing them to take actions without even telling the pilot. At the extreme of automated systems, unmanned military aircraft are capable of staggering levels of independent operation—they fly great distances, gather information, and communicate with each other, albeit with some level of remote control or supervision by humans.

Although such feats of engineering are undoubtedly impressive, Schnell firmly believes that for manned flight a pilot should be in control, with technology as an aid, not a replacement for human judgment and actions. He likes to tell a joke about the future of the flight deck: "The crew consists of a pilot and a dog. The pilot is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything."

The work that students carry out in his class could directly affect the future of aviation systems and flight safety. Students who enter careers in aviation engineering will take with them the knowledge learned over the semester, while several class projects may carry over into research efforts at the OPL. Given these high stakes, the class is rigorous. In addition to their time in the simulator, students also log hours in one of the learning labs at the Seamans Center for Engineering Arts and Sciences. During weekly three-hour sessions, they may give presentations on assigned topics, watch as Schnell reinforces a point by scrawling complicated equations on the whiteboard, or engage in animated discussions about course topics. When several students start intently discussing THERP (Technique for Human Error Rate Prediction) theory, Schnell steps away from the whiteboard, takes a seat on a wheeled chair, and scoots across the floor to join the conversation.

"When you sign up for engineering, you can expect just about every class to be hard work," says Nick Lorch, an electrical and computer engineering senior from Glen Ellyn, Illinois. "My favorite part is that the concepts I learn are put to use in my job at the OPL. In addition, Tom encourages open discussions about the topics we learn, so the class is able to come to a conclusion as a whole, instead of the teacher telling us the [answer]."

From the professor's point of view, it's a bonus to teach students who are so engaged in their subject. "It's not a problem getting the best of the best from these students," he says. Then he sweeps an arm to indicate the vast aircraft hangar full of trailing wires hooked to banks of computers and monitors, the flight simulator, and a plane stuffed with equipment the students designed and built. "Everyone likes to mess with this stuff."