MITRE Launches Nationwide Effort to Better Manage Human Fatigue in Aviation

July 2010
Topics: Aviation Safety, Human Resources Management, Civil Aviation Security, Aviation Industry
Earlier this year, MITRE organized a summit of aviation leaders, operational managers, policy makers, researchers, and safety experts to discuss the safety risks of human fatigue in aviation and develop a collaborative roadmap to combating it.
plane flying

For more than a decade, human fatigue in aviation has been the subject of extensive research across military and civilian services. Experts are seeking to better understand human fatigue risks and take countermeasures. Their efforts were underscored last year in part when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated crew fatigue, and the subsequent public hearings highlighted issues relating to pilot commuting, training, rest and duty time, and fatigue management.

Tackling transportation-related fatigue requires the combined efforts of the many groups touched by the problem. Earlier this year, 40 aviation leaders, operational managers, policy makers, researchers, and safety experts from U.S. government and industry participated in a MITRE-led summit in McLean, Va., to discuss the safety risks of human fatigue in aviation and conceive a systematic approach to combating it.

"Over the next year we are developing a collaborative roadmap to understand the risk of human fatigue in aviation across diverse missions and operations," says Hassan Shahidi, who is associate director of the System Operations, Safety, and Performance division in MITRE's Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD). He chaired the two-day summit and oversees the ongoing initiative.

During the summit, participants came to understand that fatigue is indeed an issue crossing aviation segments, including commercial flight crews, air traffic controllers, military aviators, helicopter emergency management, UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] pilots, and others—both in civil and military domains.

Fatigue: "America's Most Wanted"

Debbie Hersman, NTSB chairman, served as the summit's keynote speaker. During her address, she applauded MITRE's initiative to shed light on human fatigue, an issue that is not well understood, yet is a latent risk in aviation.

NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman applauded MITRE's initiative to shed light on human fatigue. "Fatigue has been on our 'Most Wanted List' of transportation safety improvements every year..."

NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman applauded MITRE's initiative to shed light on human fatigue. "Fatigue has been on our 'Most Wanted List' of transportation safety improvements every year..."

"Fatigue has been on our 'Most Wanted List' of transportation safety improvements every year since the list's inception in 1990," she stated in her speech. "As an NTSB board member, fatigue has been an area of special focus for me, and now as chairman, I intend to keep pushing for policy change in every way I can." Hersman was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in July 2009 as NTSB chairman.

As Hassan Shahidi notes, human fatigue is a concern for many aviation sectors in government agencies and military services. For that reason, MITRE included the topic in a special initiative to help several of our government sponsors—including the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security—address the issue in their respective aviation missions. Many other research organizations are taking part, including the Air Mobility Command Flight Safety program, the Air National Guard Readiness Center, the Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, Coast Guard, the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, NASA's Aviation Safety program, the Naval Safety Center, and the U.S. Army. Several airlines, commercial airline industry groups, general aviation safety groups, and labor organizations are also participating in this collaborative effort.

Following the summit, Shahidi commented on the widespread nature of the problem. "The risk of fatigue is not just in aviation," he says, "but one that is multimodal and affects the trucking industry, railroad, and marine operations. We intend to leverage our research findings from those industries as well."

Aviation's Common Cause

During the summit, participants discussed topics relating to fatigue in their respective operations and outlined various research efforts and activities, such as:

  • Alertness of flight crews
  • Bio-mathematical modeling of fatigue
  • Cognitive workload modeling
  • Fatigue measurement and countermeasures
  • Homeostatic (internally self-regulating) and circadian processes for modeling fatigue
  • Neurobiological regulation of fatigue
  • Performance and fatigue risk management.

Reducing pilot and crew fatigue is not only a priority of MITRE and the FAA (which sponsors the CAASD federally funded research and development center), but has received much national and public policy attention, as well. The FAA has initiated rulemaking activities to address duty and rest time for commercial pilots; Congress has been developing legislation to address pilot fatigue. On April 22, the day after the summit ended, The Wall Street Journal ran "Dispute Over Cost Delays Pilot Rules," an article that reiterated the importance of instituting a feasible plan for "keeping sleepy pilots away from the controls."

The MITRE summit marked the launch of a multiagency, industry-wide activity. The aviation leaders who participated in the summit—in addition to those who join in the coming year—are already hard at work developing an integrated roadmap for aviation fatigue research. This roadmap will be presented at an international symposium in spring 2011.

"Developing the roadmap is a collaborative government-industry effort, and MITRE has been called upon to serve in a unique position to help define the key research questions in aviation fatigue," comments Shahidi. "But equally important is to synchronize the community activities to answer the research questions."

—by Michele Bupp

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