Human Factors for Pilots, Managers and Leaders

I was privileged to launch the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s (CASA) “Safety Behaviours and Human Factors for Pilots kit at the Avalon Airshow earlier last month.

Launch – CASA’s Human Factors for Pilots kit

Here is CASA’s video of my speech to launch the Kit.  The video includes lessons I learned when working as the Aide-de-Camp for Sir Zelman Cowen and Sir Ninian Stephen, two former Governors-General of Australia.  It also includes discoveries from friends such as Neil Armstrong, Gene Kranz and Sully Sullenberger.


Human Factors

Human Factors are the soft, cognitive skills that humans combine with physical skills to accomplish tasks.  To be resilient when things go wrong, we must learn, develop and maintain all of these skills.


The subject of Human Factors is broken into four large categories:

  • The human factor (what it is to be human),
  • Human characteristics,
  • Factors affecting human performance, and
  • Socio-Human-Machine Interfaces (SHMI) (important for designers, builders and certifiers of equipment for human use).

Human Factors for Pilots

Human Factors is a phenomenally large subject.  I do not know one person who understands it all.   In aviation, we focus on the Human Factors categories that affect us in our local areas of responsibilities.  We trust experts in other areas (such as the SHMI) to deliver in theirs.

The Human Factors subjects taught to pilots include:

  • body and mental models,
  • communications,
  • crew resource management,
  • culture (learning, reporting, safety and just),
  • decision making,
  • distractions,
  • fatigue,
  • free mental space,
  • leadership,
  • learning from others’ successes, near misses and failures
  • monitoring,
  • physiology of the body and brain,
  • psychology of the mind,
  • risk,
  • situational awareness,
  • stepping up,
  • stress,
  • teamwork, and
  • threat and error management.

These subjects are listed alphabetically, because they are all important and depend upon each other.

Human Factors for Leaders and Managers

Every manager and leader should learn and understand Human Factors.  Whilst the hard (physical) threats in life are decreasing, the soft (cognitive) threats are increasing.  Whilst engines, systems, technology and automation are all becoming more reliable, we are at the same time being challenged more by the increased and external threats from disruption, change, complexity, hidden intellectual property (black boxes), congestion, cost constraints and time.

You never hear about aviation when things go well.  That’s because our Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) get the job done in the 95 percent of the times when everything is standard.

When everything is standard, pilots are Functional (Procedural) Leaders (FLY! page 172).

You only hear about aviation when things go wrong, when things are not standard.  It’s when things go wrong that Human Factors become the critical skill sets that differentiate those who have them and survive, from the rest that perish.  When the automation (that we now take for granted) fails, it’s the qualities of our human skills that determine if we recover and survive.

In aviation when the unexpected happens, pilots are trained to be more than Trait Leaders (FLY! page 172).  When “failure is not an option”, pilots are trained to be HRO (High Reliability Organization) Leaders (FLY! page 176).

Aviation is resilient.  In 2018, of the 4.3 billion passenger-sector seats occupied, 561 people perished.  These people died in 18 accidents in the 38 million departures that year.   To put these numbers into perspective, the (MicroMort) risk of dying from a hospitalisation mistake or error is equal to the risk of dying in 7,000 one-hour commercial jet aircraft flights (FLY! page 148).

Aviation is resilient because it combines the efficiency of technology and automation when they are  working, with the human resilience to recover when things go wrong.  Human Factors is an essential ingredient in resilience.  Fortunately, Human Factors can be learned by any person.

The Elements of Resilience

The skills to be resilient are:

  • Knowledge,
  • Training,
  • Experience,
  • Teamwork,
  • Leadership,
  • Decision Making,
  • Crisis Management and
  • Risk.

To be resilient after a crisis, we must also understand Post Traumatic Stress  (FLY! chapter 9).

These are the foundation and timeless Elements of Resilience that I detail in FLY!

These Elements of Resilience increase the probability of our successes, reduce the probability of near misses and failures.  They help us create novel solutions when we find ourselves and people that depend on us facing the unexpected, low probability but dreadful black swan events.  Indeed, we can look at Human Factors to identify and explain why some of the world’s leaders today are successful, and others continue to fail.

There is nothing “easy” about acquiring the skills needed to be resilient.   It’s long, hard and effortful work.   But the rewards are there for those who try.

Resilient leaders have many traits in common.   They include being tough, disciplined, competent, confident and courageous.  They exemplify everything that existed in the culture at NASA during the later Apollo years.   They embody the knowledge and skills of Neil Armstrong and the NASA astronauts.  They are guided by the values and set the culture laid down by Gene Kranz after he delivered the Kranz Dictum (FLY! page 189).

Human Factors for (Leaders, Managers and) pilots

Congratulations and thanks to every person at CASA who contributed to the Human Factors kit for pilots.  It is an approachable and easy-to-read set of workbooks.  There are many interviews with aviation professionals.  There are learnings and lessons for not just for pilots, managers and leaders, but for everyone.

Everyone must commit to a lifetime of learning.  Regardless of who you are and your current expertise, the skills that got you to here, today, will not get you to where you need to be tomorrow. So  I recommend the CASA Human Factors kit as an entertaining and even enjoyable journey into the human condition, with lessons that show both the amateur and professional how to maximise their performance and reach their full potential.

The aviation and medicine industries perform at opposite ends of the resilience scale,  Yet the CASA Human Factors kit has information and tools to help every professional to be the best they can be, and improve humanity in the process.


See also


Can you work this out?    “Resilience” by Coplu (

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