Vector Information in the Modern Cockpit
I remember my math lessons on scalar versus vector information being taught as theoretical lessons but without practical examples this knowledge was hard to absorb.
Understanding how a quantity versus a quantity + direction could be beneficial to everyday life was learned through practical experience.
My bicycle odometer reading 1.2 miles was scalar information yet riding it from home to school (1.2 miles) was vector information as there was distance and direction.
These were the practical examples my brain needed to understand a theoretical concept.
During flight training on Cessna 150’s there were more opportunities to build on this knowledge as these aircraft were equipped with basic flight instruments that presented a lot of scalar but also some vector information.
Scalar instruments could also, with a great deal of attention and practice, provide more than just magnitude information.
The airspeed indicator is an example where focusing full attention could pick up on needle movement interpreted as acceleration or deceleration.
This information now had magnitude and direction which fits the definition of a vector. Unfortunately, this select focus meant other parameters were slow to be picked up on or missed altogether.
Welcome to manual flight in IMC using basic flight instruments.
On more complex high-performance aircraft, prior to glass cockpits, picking up on these trends was key to operating efficiently and effectively.
Not having this skill often meant early or late selection of gear and flap or inconsistent achieving of speed and altitude constraints.
Now fast forward to the cockpits of today’s modern aircraft.
Advancements in electronic flight instrumentation systems has been rapid, enabled by the exponential growth in computing power and improvements in display technology.
Once only available on airliners or corporate aircraft these systems are now common in all sectors of aviation.
Parallel advances in input data allows for large amounts of information including an array of vector information to be displayed on this human machine interface.
System designers, aircraft manufacturers and regulators have put careful thought and consideration into what information is useful and how it should be displayed.
Filtering and use of this data have not always been optimal as some pilots still rely on scanning techniques developed on basic flight instruments.
Eye tracking technology when fully matured may become an important tool in developing or correcting deficiencies in instrument scanning and accurately focusing a pilot’s attention.
Without proper training visual information may become overwhelming when combined with other audio, visual and physical stimuli in the cockpit.
Under stress, humans will lose an average of 80 percent of their capacity to process information.
This may induce primacy effect and a reversion back to old methods of analyzing information.
It is important that training organisations focus attention in this area by developing training modules and simulator scenarios that highlight and improve these fundamental skills.
If we think of electronic flight instruments and auto flight system as another pilot, they communicate with us in normal circumstances with visual nonverbal communication.
As vector information is displayed to both pilots, it’s important that the pilot monitoring uses this information to predict the aircraft’s future state.
Observable behaviours that are desirable in a monitoring pilot are also displayed by electronic flight instruments with vector information.
· Sharing mental model
· Communicating any changes to the other pilot
· Actively monitoring actual state against expected state
· Spotting deviations
As an example, a smaller than normal speed trend vector during takeoff speaks to the pilots and should require an answer.
If the pilot flying loses situational awareness or the ability to process information, flight and engine instrument vectors will predict and communicate the aircraft’s future state to the pilot monitoring who can react appropriately.
It is important that pilots know and understand all vector information available in the cockpit and provide context to its use.
Large speed fluctuations in cruise require different procedures than speed fluctuations on final approach.
Their colour, movement or other change draws our attention to these indicators and therefore it’s important that we quickly understand what we are being told and know what we should do about it.
In several recent high profile accidents vector information was available to the pilots but not interpreted correctly, not seen or dismissed.
Proper use of this information could have dramatically changed the outcome.
At AVCON we were recently asked to build a training module on the importance and use of vector information.
This type of training should be included in the wider topic of optimum understanding and use of electronic flight instruments.
With the reliability of modern aircraft certain skills can degrade due to infrequent use.
Put in a stressful scenario of aircraft upset or manual flight with somatogravic illusion, being able to regain control requires certain skills including a good understanding of vector information.