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Customer Review

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent confluence of aviation and psychology, May 24, 2007
This review is from: The Limits of Expertise: Rethinking Pilot Error and the Causes of Airline Accidents (Paperback)
Out of approximately 10 million air carrier flights annually in the US, only about 50 involve a major accident. That may not sound like much, but those accidents consist of events like these: a Continental Airlines flight that landed without its landing gear deployed in Houston; an American Airlines flight that suffered loss of control at 16000 ft.; and another American Airlines flight that hit some trees while attempting to land, the culmination of a series of small, individually insignificant errors. These are some of the examples scrutinized in detail, drawn from a large population of accidents in which human error was a major factor. This book makes fascinating reading - providing pilots and aviation professionals with a new perspective on crew error, and the general public with a new way of looking at the whole aviation system and how safety issues are considered.

The authors dissect these accidents in a way that the airline industry has not attempted in great depth before. Rather than stopping at the facts and a conclusion of "crew error", they ask why highly skilled flight crews, with thousands of hours of flying experience, make mistakes and erroneous judgments with horrifying consequences. The common reaction after an accident is that the crew was not sufficiently skilled, otherwise they would not have made the error. The authors start with a different assumption: they assume that the crew was as good as any other crew that could have been chosen, and from that starting point, their illuminating analyses lead them to consider some very interesting psychological and operational factors that underlie these accidents.

To do this, the authors draw on their expertise on how the human brain works (memory systems and decision-making apparatus) and their complementary expertise on aviation and operations. The authors are all affiliated with NASA; two of the them are research psychologists, one of them was a major investigator with the primary transportation investigative arm of the government, the National Transportation & Safety Board, and all of them have extensive experience with aviation safety.

The book covers 19 accidents, devoting a chapter to each. Two additional chapters at the end provide statistics and a summary of the common themes and factors the authors uncover as contributing to these accidents, along with some prescription of possible countermeasures. When an airplane is involved in an accident, the National Transportation & Safety Board performs thorough investigations - these include interviews with the survivors, forensic evidence, the data from the black box, etc. The investigators produce a report that lays out the facts and their judgment of the causes of the accident.

The studies in this book take these reports as a starting point, and go down paths that the NTSB never ventures (their charter does not permit that). Each of the accident chapters is constructed to provide first a factual recount of the event and the NTSB conclusions. From here the authors identify the most significant events leading up to the accident, and for each event in turn, provide an analysis that mixes operational knowledge with cognitive functioning.

This is not a Michael Crichton thriller, but those familiar with aviation will easily be able to follow the details as they are stated in factual, non-judgmental manner, and will see into the deep causes of the events that led up to the final accident. Readers who are already familiar with aviation terminology will find the book easy to read (do you know what "LOFT" and "windshear" mean?). At the end, the very helpful glossary covers both aviation and cognitive psychology terms so that readers of all levels of industry expertise or interest can enjoy this useful study.
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