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New crash analysis system helps investigators target main cause of airplane accidents

Sharita Forrest , News Editor
(217) 244-1072;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new crash analysis system is helping accident investigators shed more light on the main causal factor of aviation accidents: human error.

The Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) developed by Douglas A. Wiegmann, a professor in the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation, and Scott A. Shappell of the Federal Aviation Administration Aeromedical Institute is described in an article in the November issue of Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.

Rather than focusing solely upon the flight crew, HFACS examines human error at all levels, from the cockpit to the operator’s supervisory personnel and upper-level management. The system also analyzes the organization’s idiosyncratic corporate culture, policies and procedures as well as adverse physiological or mental states and limitations, such as fatigue, that can impair judgment or skills and result in crashes.

Wiegmann and Shappell developed the HFACS framework by
examining data from more than 300 U.S. Navy aviation accidents and honed it using information from Army and Air Force safety centers, the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA. Under a three-year grant funded by the FAA, the system is now being tested by a commercial airline.

While the accident reporting and analysis systems currently in use have been effective at identifying mechanical and structural failures, they have been far less effective at identifying the human errors responsible for accidents, the researchers said. And it is human error that leads to 70 to 80 percent of aviation accidents, according to Wiegmann and Shappell’s research.

"HFACS enables investigators to uncover the specific types of human causal factors behind accidents," said Wiegmann, an expert in aviation human factors research. "They can determine whether the problem is skill-based, a perceptual problem or whether it’s attributable to an organizational factor, such as inadequate supervision or poor communication. Once the causal factors are known, the success or failure of current intervention programs can be gauged and retooled if necessary or new programs developed to address particular types of errors."

HFACS may also be applicable beyond the flight deck, to areas such as aircraft maintenance and air traffic control, possibilities that will be explored in future research.