Could Simulator Training Have Averted the Crash of Flight 3407?

May 13, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Posted in virtual worlds | Leave a comment

I’m as shocked as anyone to read the transcripts of the flight talk on the doomed flight 3407 to Buffalo that crashed apparently due to wrong maneuvers by the pilot.  Apparently when a stick pusher tried to avert a stall by diving, the captain forced the plane to do the opposite and crashed.

As someone who travels frequently (and sometimes on “puddle jumpers” like this one) it’s pretty scary to see this can happen.  I don’t normally use this blog to vent my own fears and anxieties, so I’ll tie it to one of my coverage areas: enterprise virtual worlds.  Last year I spoke with Arnaldo “AJ” Peralta of Icarus Studios, a designer of virtual world strategies, who demonstrated the value of simulation and rehearsal by talking about a Jet Blue flight that made a successful landing with the front wheels stuck sideways.  He told me the captain of that flight claimed he was able to land the plane safely because he had learned from three previous crashes – in simulation.(I haven’t found an online reference to verify that, although a commenter here describes hearing the pilot mention the value of the regular training simulations they do).

This presents us with an unfortunate example of the value of virtual environment simulations in preparing for catastrophic events in a manner that allows for safe mistakes. Kurt Squire in 2003 (cited here) worded this type of learning from mistakes in safety as “provid[ing] choices and consequences in simulated worlds.”

These types of simulations are not strictly learning (acquiring new information and skills), but are rather rehearsal.  Rehearsal follows training/learning just as rehearsing for a play follows the actors memorizing their lines.  The rehearsal pokes, prods, and tests whether the user can retrieve and apply that information in the correct situations.  It also solidifies the information by connecting it to real experience and allows for iterative learning from mistakes in an environment where failures have no costs.

Scaling down the nature of the disaster, one can see the value of providing enterprise virtual world simulations of situations they may encounter, such as a reactor overload at a nuclear power plant, a chemical spill on a major freeway, or a fire on an oil rig.

Unfortunately, according to the WSJ, the simulators used at Colgan (the operator of the doomed flight) didn’t cover this scenario:

Colgan’s standard training program stops short of demonstrating the operation of the stick-pusher in flight simulators. Without such hands-on experience, safety investigators argue, pilots could be surprised and not react properly when the stick-pusher activates during an emergency. The FAA is required to sign off on all airline training manuals.

On Sunday, Colgan said its FAA-approved program includes “comprehensive” classroom training on the stick-pusher but emphasized a demonstration in a simulator “is not required by the FAA and was not part of the training syllabus” Colgan received when it obtained its Q400s.

There’s nothing that can be done now to help those aboard flight 3407.  But enterprises can take the comparison between a disaster in an emergency situation that the pilot had not run in simulation and a successful avoidance of disaster from a pilot that had simulated the incident.  That’s an over-simplification to be sure (every situation is different, lack of sleep was involved as well, compliance to policies was not monitored or enforced, etc.), but I believe the value of rehearsal through virtual simulations can be distilled from this incident and applied to other common business and government scenarios.

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