About a week ago I got a call from someone at the U of I looking for test subjects for an interactive cognition study of pilots. The purpose was to see how pilots processed lengthy ATC (air traffic control) instructions and what aids were useful in remembering them. The kid--he couldn’t have been over 21--who conducted the tests was a psychology undergrad in his 2nd year. He reminded me a little of Data in the methodical, almost dispassionate way in which he administered the tests.
The tests were conducted over two, three hour sessions. The first was Thursday. Before the experimentation began I had to sign a waiver saying I understood the risks involved. About the only tangible risk was the slight possibility of damage to my retina from the infrared eye tracker they were going to be using to track my instrument scan in the simulator. This eye tracker was part of a larger piece of head gear that would also track my head movements as I looked around the cockpit. The whole contraption reminded me of something from a Terry Gilliam movie—sort of menacing looking but completely harmless.
The first portion of the experiment was kind of humiliating. It involved testing my vocabulary and memory. The vocabulary part I aced. The other part though made me feel like a senile old man. That part involved listening to a tape recording of a series of sentences. As soon as a sentence was spoken I had to indicate whether it was true or false. After that series of sentences was completed I had to say the last word of each sentence read to me. I did fine when there were no more than three sentences in series. But when they got up to four I couldn’t remember anything. At first I started making things up, but finally admitted I couldn’t remember. My examiner, as nice of a kid as he was, was almost entirely devoid of humor. Any time I tried to ease my embarrassment by joking around, he’d just silently stare at me as if I was a petri dish and continue the experiment.
Thankfully, that part of the experiment ended after about an hour and the fun stuff with the simulator started. The simulator was a Frasca 142 situated in this big room in the basement of the Beckman Institute. In front of it were three big 12’+ screens on which were projected the simulated world of Frasca. Unfortunately the simulated world of Frasca is stuck in early 1990’s VGA. My flying environment consisted of a flat green earth opposite blue sky with high cirrus clouds. You could probably achieve the same effects with the display on your cell phone.
In the sim, I was tested on my ability to hear and comply with ATC instructions under a variety of conditions. Basically the conditions were:
- Copying ATC instructions using a kneeboard with paper and pad
- Flying without any type of memory aid at all
- Using an “MCP”—I don’t know what that was an acronym for, but it was a touch screen that let me tap in the heading, altitude and airspeed ATC instructed me to fly
Every section of the test began with the examiner speaking into the voice recorder, “Subject 12, (condition).” I have to admit it gave me slight chill to be referred to as “Subject 12”. But that’s science I guess. I’m sure collating research data would be much more difficult if those listening to the recordings had to hear, “This is Larry. He’s an Aries who likes trees and enjoys autumn walks in the park. He’s recently been married and his favorite treat is peanut butter.”
On Thursday all we really did was a familiarization session with the simulator and the types of conditions I would be operating under. Today was the main part of the test in which I had to don the aforementioned eye/head movement tracker. Calibrating the eye tracker was exactly like the calibration sequence you usually encounter in video games like Halo. After he’d locked the infrared tracker onto my eye, he had me look at numbered locations on the instrument panel so he could “map” where I looked in the cockpit.
After about 2 ½ hours of "flying" with the tracker cinched down on my noggin, I was getting a sore neck and a slight headache. But I kept telling myself I was doing this for the good of aviators everywhere. I was the Chuck Yeager of interactive cognition and my contribution to science might very well save the lives of countless pilots in the future. The reality is, I’ve probably done nothing more than help put a slight dent in the incidence of air traffic controllers having to repeat themselves. Still, I had about a 1% chance of damaging my retina in the process. Hey, it’s not the same as strapping myself to an X-15, but I could very well have wound up needing a good squirt of Visine.
After I was done, Data paid me (a whopping $44 smackers) and I walked over to Murphy’s Pub and celebrated my exploits with my wife and a $7 pitcher of Leinie’s Sunset Wheat. Yeah, it feels good to be a gangsta'.
Finally, my wife surprised me with the news that we are now a family. Yes, she got me a fish. A spunky little Beta which I shall call Walter. Pictures forthcoming.