The differential effect of sustained operations on psychomotor skills of helicopter pilots

Terry W. McMahon, David G. Newman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


INTRODUCTION: Flying a helicopter is a complex psychomotor skill requiring constant control inputs from pilots. A deterioration in psychomotor performance of a helicopter pilot may be detrimental to operational safety. The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that psychomotor performance deteriorates over time during sustained operations and that the effect is more pronounced in the feet than the hands. The subjects were helicopter pilots conducting sustained multicrew offshore flight operations in a demanding environment. The remote flight operations involved constant workload in hot environmental conditions with complex operational tasking. METHODS: Over a period of 6 d 10 helicopter pilots were tested. At the completion of daily flying duties, a helicopter-specific screen-based compensatory tracking task measuring tracking accuracy (over a 5-min period) tested both hands and feet. Data were compared over time and tested for statistical significance for both deterioration and differential effect. RESULTS: A statistically significant deterioration of psychomotor performance was evident in the pilots over time for both hands and feet. There was also a statistically significant differential effect between the hands and the feet in terms of tracking accuracy. The hands recorded a 22.6% decrease in tracking accuracy, while the feet recorded a 39.9% decrease in tracking accuracy. DISCUSSION: The differential effect may be due to prioritization of limb movement by the motor cortex due to factors such as workload-induced cognitive fatigue. This may result in a greater reduction in performance in the feet than the hands, posing a significant risk to operational safety.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)496-502
Number of pages7
JournalAerospace Medicine and Human Performance
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018


  • Feet
  • Hands
  • Performance
  • Rotary
  • Tracking

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