Ready for Takeoff: USC Viterbi Aviation Safety and Security Program Rolls Out New Course Based on Emotional Intelligence

Maria Vittoria Borghi | February 21, 2024

Students learn to promote safety and resilience in organizations through a mix of theoretical modules and hands-on exercises

Thomas Anthony, director of the USC Viterbi Aviation Safety and Security Program (Photo/Courtesy of Thomas Anthony)

Thomas Anthony, director of the USC Viterbi Aviation Safety and Security Program (Photo/Courtesy of Thomas Anthony)

In 2022, John DeLeeuw, an instructor at the USC Viterbi Aviation Safety and Security Program, determined that the program needed new tools to advance the understanding of “human factors,” a term that refers to research on the harmony and friction between people and their work environment, both technical and human. Understanding human factors in aviation is key to preventing and managing mistakes and improving safety when dealing with technical systems.

Little more than one year later, DeLeeuw’s dream became a reality. Between January 29 and February 2, the Viterbi School’s Aviation Safety and Security program launched a new multi-day class, Human Performance and Resilience (HPRL), which put emotional intelligence as a driver of a positive organizational culture at the forefront.

Other human factors curricula focus mainly on physical issues, such as how fatigue and confirmation biases can impair human judgment. In doing so, they typically neglect how empathy and respect impact relationships and performance across all organizational levels: USC Viterbi’s Human Performance and Resilience class, or HPRL, fills that gap.

The five-day class took place at USC’s Aircraft Accident Investigation lab in Alhambra. Much like other aviation safety and security courses at USC Viterbi, the HPRL students came from a wide range of organizations, including CalFire, the California state organization that maintains firefighting aircrafts, Southwest Airlines, Asiana Airlines in South Korea, the Singapore Army, and GE Aerospace, a world-leading provider of turbine engines.

The new course is based on two well-established practices in aviation safety: crew resource management and threat error management. Crew resource management procedures were created to equip all members of an aircraft crew with the skills to communicate their concerns effectively; threat error management techniques were developed to help them deal with unforeseen situations and real complications.

The emphasis on holistic healing separates this course from others related to human factors. While active listening can be faked, for instance, through nodding and mm-hmm sounds, a holistic listener needs to fixate on the speaker visually. To Thomas Anthony, director of the USC Viterbi Aviation Safety and Security Program, this “protocol” is extremely effective in establishing respect among parties because it leverages neurophysiological processes.

“That sets up the relationship of, ‘if I respect you, then you will have the reaction of respecting me,’” he said. “This bilateral, symbiotic relationship of respect is the basic building block of our new course.”

Students at the human performance and resilience class (Photo/Tom Anthony)

Students at the human performance and resilience class (Photo/Tom Anthony)

The notion of Holistic Listening evolved over the 18- month course development process by a stellar group of graduate students, instructors and professors, including NASA astronaut Dr. Anna Fisher. Fisher “the first mom in space” flew in 1984 on The Space Shuttle Discovery STS 51A,  a mission to recover two satellites in wrong and useless orbits. Fisher and the other Discovery astronauts improvised an unprecedented recovery method after initial attempts proved unworkable. Fisher, working the robotic arm while two other astronauts wrestled with the satellites from outside the shuttle, successfully recovered the wayward satellites that were subsequently launched into their correct orbits.

As part of the five-day course, Fisher brought her expertise to bear by teaching the importance of interpersonal skills in managing the safety and health of crews and vehicles a task she knows well from her NASA role as the Chief of Space Station development.

Not every USC Viterbi Safety and Aviation instructor was immediately on board with the course. Flight surgeon Dr. Gregg Bendrick, for instance, initially had doubts about the premise, worrying that the emphasis on the emotional aspect of the perception lacked scientific rigor.

He soon changed his mind.

“When I had to review some of my neurophysiology and read up on some of the current aspects of the last 20 years, I realized this isn’t just touchy feely, kind of, I don’t know, poetry for physics or something,” he said.  “This is actual, real neurophysiology, real neurobiology.”

Bendrick, who is also an FAA medical officer, is now convinced that the human performance and resilience course is vital for pilots and safety managers, considering the prevalence of mental health struggles in aviation.

Indeed, the aviation industry is no stranger to psychiatric issues. In August 2023, the Washington Post reported on an ongoing FAA investigation of over 4,500 pilots who failed to declare health issues that may disqualify them from flight duty.

In this context, Bendrick wanted the course to teach students about the importance of mental health issues, both on the ground and in the skies.

“I remember telling Tom that this stuff is real, this it is important, and this can kill you, either from disease or from accident or whatever,” Bendrick said. “And I realized that we really needed to put it in clear-cut terms that pilots and safety managers could understand that, in fact, it is real, it is important, and it can kill you.”

The reviews of the first HPRL students echo their teachers’ opinions.

Adrienne Sullivan, a human factors engineer at Bell Helicopter in Texas, found the course invaluable.

“I would tell [everyone] they probably should have this course,” she said.

HPRL student Zachary Funk, a safety program manager for Red Wing Aviation and a corporate pilot based in South Carolina, also believes that the course material is fundamental for people in aviation. He is eager to apply what he learned and build a productive safety culture where everyone feels comfortable and able to contribute to the company’s mission.

“Coming from the corporate world, I think people in this line of work could need this kind of training,” he said. “Even if we conduct operations on the same scale as other pilots, the support structure is not comparable, so. Absolutely. I think anyone, and especially people flying private aircrafts, needs to take a course like this.”

Over 70 years after the inception of USC’s Viterbi Aviation Safety Program, Anthony proudly calls the new human performance and resilience course “a pioneering look at the interrelationship between organizational culture and emotional intelligence, which is exactly what is needed for those organizations that have discounted the value of leadership and the necessity of communication.”




Published on February 21st, 2024

Last updated on February 21st, 2024

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