AAIB: Human Factors and the Identification of Saab 2000 Flight Control Malfunctions

AAIB: Human Factors and the Identification of Saab 2000 Flight Control Malfunctions

The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has recently issued its report on a loss of control in flight incident, near Sumburgh Airport, on 15 December 2014 involving Saab 2000 G-LGNO:

The aircraft was inbound to land on Runway 27 at Sumburgh when the pilots discontinued the approach because of weather to the west of the airport. As the aircraft established on a southerly heading, it was struck by lightning. When the commander made nose-up pitch inputs the aircraft did not respond as he expected. After reaching 4,000 ft amsl the aircraft pitched to a minimum of 19° nose down and exceeded the applicable maximum operating speed (VMO) by 80 kt, with a peak descent rate of 9,500 ft/min. The aircraft started to climb after reaching a minimum height of 1,100 ft above sea level.

Saab 2000 (Credit: Saab)

Saab 2000 (Credit: Saab)

Recorded data showed that the autopilot had remained engaged, contrary to the pilots’ understanding, and the pilots’ nose-up pitch inputs were countered by the autopilot pitch trim function, which made a nose-down pitch trim input in order to regain the selected altitude.

While the whole report is worthy of study but the AAIB discuss the identification of flight control malfunctions in a section that we feel is worth highlighting:

In an aircraft with purely mechanical flying controls, a jammed flight control can be identified by resistance to movement of the control wheel or column. Failure of a control linkage will be apparent as the control will move without the usual resistance. In either case, the absence of the usual aircraft response to an input will be apparent. In this control system, the ‘loop’ from pilot input, to response felt through the controls, to aircraft response, is complete. In an aircraft with powered or fly-by-wire controls, and without any physical feedback, it may be harder to determine a malfunction because effect of control inputs can only be assessed from aircraft response. In manoeuvring flight or turbulence, this assessment may be more difficult.

In the Saab 2000, the forces required to achieve particular control column displacement are greater when the autopilot is engaged, but this is not a usual mode of operation and pilots are unlikely to be familiar with it. A pilot feeling abnormal control resistance may not readily determine that the reason for the unusual forces is that the autopilot is engaged. Mental models are developed by experience and/or training, and more experience leads to more detailed mental models. Mental models guide interaction with systems: an accurate mental model can facilitate good performance, but poor mental models can lead to misunderstanding of system functioning, increasing the risk of error.

Designers can promote good mental models by optimising feedback, for example by providing indicators of system status and performance which are easily assimilated, even under stress. Automation surprise* can occur if the autopilot does not behave as expected, for example if the system remains engaged when the flight crew believes it is not. Clear feedback of the system’s status can help to prevent this inconsistency. Stress, which might be experienced in the moments after a lightning strike, leads to an increase in physiological arousal. This may lead to ‘cognitive tunnelling’, in which individuals exhibit a tendency to focus on a small number of the most salient or expected information, and only information that supports the prevailing understanding of the situation may be processed. Cognitive tunnelling not only affects perception of visual signals, it can also affect auditory processing at times of high cognitive load; this is ‘inattentional deafness’.

Clear and prominent status indicators can assist. The results from a study on ‘inattentional deafness’ in pilots in a cockpit environment were published in a paper entitled ‘Failure to Detect Critical Auditory Alerts in the Cockpit: Evidence for Inattentional Deafness’**. In this study 28 pilots of different experience levels were placed in a . They were given time to practise landings and then told to expect one of 5 different events to occur including an antiskid failure, an engine failure, a ground proximity warning and a landing gear failure. The aural warnings and visual indications associated with these conditions were shown to them. All the pilots were then given the landing gear failure scenario. Half the pilots were also given a windshear scenario (to simulate high workload) and the other half were not (to simulate normal workload). Of the pilots who were given the windshear scenario 57% failed to detect the aural gear failure warning. Of the pilots who were given the non-windshear scenario all of them detected the aural gear failure warning

In the case of this serious Saab 2000 incident the AAIB made 5 recommendations.  The Swedish AIB, the SHK, however have commented that changes to the Saab 2000 autopilot would be ‘disproportionate’ in their view. Aerossurance has previously written about automation, including:

* On automation surprise the AAIB reference: Sarter, N. B., & Woods, D. D. (1995). How in the world did we ever get into that mode? Mode error and awareness in supervisory control. Human Factors, 37(1), 5-19.  See also this NASA presentation.

** Dehais, Causse, Vachon, Regis, Menant & Tremblay (2013). Failure to Detect Critical Auditory Alerts in the Cockpit: Evidence for Inattentional Deafness. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (published online 11 November 2013).

UPDATE 9 January 2017: HeliOffshore have released a HeliOffshore Automation Guidance document and six videos to demonstrate the offshore helicopter industry’s recommended practice for the use of automation.

UPDATE 19 April 2017: Aerossurance is pleased to sponsor the 2017 European Society of Air Safety Investigators (ESASI) 8th Regional Seminar in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  The seminar featured a presentation on this investigation.  ESASI is the European chapter of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI).

UPDATE 10 May 2017: EASA published their responses to date on the safety recommendations (catalogued in their Annual Safety Recommendations Review 2016.

UPDATE 18 June 2018: EASA published further responses in their Annual Safety Recommendations Review 2017 issued today).

Aerossurance has extensive air safety, design, certification, human factors and safety analysis experience.  For practical aviation advice you can trust, contact us at: enquiries@aerossurance.com

Saab 2000 G-LNGO  (Credit: Ronnie Robertson)

Saab 2000 G-LNGO (Credit: Ronnie Robertson)