COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nearly four of five pilot errors that result in aircraft incidents occur before a flight ever leaves ground, according to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. Now, aviation researchers at Ohio State University hope to improve this record through a program under development that helps pilots make pre-flight decisions.

The goal is to help pilots develop guidelines about whether they should fly in a particular instance, said Richard Jensen, an associate professor of aviation and director of the Aviation Psychology Lab at Ohio State.

"Personal Minimums as a Risk Management Tool" is a program designed for non-military pilots and pilots who do not fly scheduled flights for airlines, called general aviation pilots.

Personal minimums are unique guidelines a pilot follows when

making personal decisions about flying.

Some pilots may have as a personal minimum a resolve to fly only when they had at least eight hours of sleep the night before. Another example is a personal standard of flying only when the cloud ceiling is above a certain level.

"We have found that the majority of errors general aviation pilots make that result in accidents are caused by bad pilot judgment," Jensen said. "So we developed a new way of teaching pilots to think about how they manage the risks of flying.

"The Federal Aviation Administration has guidelines pilots must follow when deciding whether to fly or not, but they are broad and may not take into account individual pilot limitations," Jensen said. "So pilots have to evaluate their level of ability and develop guidelines that are more stringent than what the FAA sets."

During the program, pilots are asked to list any guidelines they follow when deciding whether to fly. Program instructors present them with scenarios involving various pre-flight risk factors, such as bad weather or heavy cargo.

Pilots decide how they would respond to these scenarios and then develop a list of personal minimums. The case studies are tailored to meet the needs of pilots in different regions of the country. Pilots in New York City or Los Angeles would discuss personal minimums for flying in heavy traffic areas, while pilots who fly in mountain ranges would develop guidelines for flying in areas with unusual terrain or unpredictable weather patterns.

By presenting pilots with case studies of both good and bad pre-flight decisions, Jensen said pilots are given an opportunity to decide how they would respond in similar situations. Pilots also review federal regulations and new developments in aircraft designs and instruments.

"This program could be helpful to pilots at any level in their career," Jensen said. "You cannot be a safe pilot unless you are continuing to learn."

Development of the program is sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Research on the program was presented at the International Symposium on Aviation Psychology, sponsored by Ohio State and held in Columbus in April.

The program, which is currently being field tested, requires 90 minutes to complete. Jensen said the FAA is considering including the personal minimums program in a series of safety courses called WINGS. Pilots who complete the voluntary program receive a safety certificate. Some insurance companies offer discounts to WINGS-certified pilots.

"I think the interest in safety comes from the airline accidents that we've seen in the last year or so," Jensen said. "But, people also are beginning to realize that airline pilots come from the general aviation community, so safety becomes an even bigger issue."

Co-authors of the program are Gerald P. Chubb, an assistant professor of aviation and industrial and systems engineering; and graduate students Larry Kirkbride, and Jim Guilkey.

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Contact: Richard Jensen, (614) 292-8378

Written by Kelli Whitlock, (614) 292-9475