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Meet Jeannie Davison


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Research Associate, Systems Safety

Who I am
I am a Research Associate in the Systems Safety Research Branch. What this means is that I work with a group of people who study factors that affect the safety of flight. Our research involves aircraft and pilots rather than spacecraft and astronauts. While our work isn't as glamorous as the space program, it has a more direct impact on most Americans. The results of our studies are used by airlines to help train pilots and design flight procedures.

We use many methods to study flight crews. We may write up surveys to ask them what difficulties they encounter when flying or how they would solve specific problems. We may also use personal computers to present pilots with information and ask them to give us their opinions or to help us solve some problem. Then we may use the responses from those studies to design a simulator study to see how pilots solve problems, how they communicate, and how they work together as a team in a real flight situation. We have access to two full-motion flight simulators at Ames Research Center for use in our studies. These are computer driven simulators of real aircraft cockpits. They are so realistic that airlines use them to train pilots for flying real aircraft.

One part of my job involves gathering background information to design studies. I do this by reading aircraft accident reports to see what went wrong. I also use the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System ( http://olias.arc.nasa.gov/asrs/ ) to see what kind of problems pilots are reporting. Once we have decided on a topic to study, we then design scenarios to present to pilots, either in survey questionnaires or on a computer. We work together as a team to design our scenarios and always bring in some professional airline pilots to help us. This ensures that we use realistic events in our studies.

Once we have designed our study and generated scenarios, we bring in airline pilots to participate in our study. This may involve having them work for a few hours on a computer, fill out questionnaires, or fly in our simulator. One of the studies I participated in required flight crews to make 5 flights in our simulator in one day. I was one of the researchers who took turns sitting in the simulator during the flights to observe and take notes. Once we have collected their data, we use statistics (a special form of mathematical formulas) to analyze the data and see what we found.

Hopefully we will discover some results that help us identify factors that can be changed to help improve aviation safety. We may also include air traffic controllers and airline flight dispatchers in our studies, depending on what aspects of aviation safety we are interested in for a particular project.

My career path
I came to this career in a rather indirect route. I worked for many years in another career (cost and scheduling for big construction projects) but wanted to find a new career. While working in South Carolina, I began to skydive for fun (I've made 125 jumps and only broken one leg!). While spending my weekends at the airport, I started taking flying lessons, something my father had done before I was born. I received my private pilot certificate and continued flying for pleasure. Several years later, I began to work on the construction of a new airport, and this gave me the opportunity to take some aviation management classes. I figured that if I hung around an airport long enough, I'd find something I wanted to do - and that's what happened.

Sadly, a friend of mine was killed while flying his own aircraft, and that got me interested in how it's determined what caused an accident. I learned about the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), how they investigate accidents, and then make recommendations to improve safety. This led me to design my college education to prepare me for a career in aviation safety. I was fortunate to attend a school that allowed you to design your own degree. With the advice of a couple of NTSB investigators and a NASA research scientist, I combined classes from the professional pilot, aviation management, and business administration departments to create an aviation safety degree. I had the opportunity to work as an intern at one of the biggest airlines in the US for a summer, which included riding in the cockpit during a number of flights and visiting an aircraft manufacturing facility. What a great way to learn more about how an airline operates. In addition, I earned a dual major in psychology, so that I would be prepared for the research end of aviation safety. After completing this degree, I came to Ames Research Center to work in aviation research while earning a Master's degree in Experimental Psychology.

What I like most about my career
The most positive aspect of my career is the opportunity to make a difference in a field I love - aviation. It's really exciting when we hear from people at the airlines that they've read one of our papers and plan to use it in their work. As the aviation system continues to grow, we know there will be new challenges for us, and I look forward to helping keep our airspace the safest it can be. The only negative element of my job is having to study accidents. While they can be fascinating from the problem-solving point of view, we can never forget that real people were hurt or may have died as a result of the accident. Every accident represents a failure in the aviation system, and our goal is find ways to avoid those failures in the future - before they cause an accident.

a photo infront of a jet engine A group of us from NASA took a tour of the United Airlines Maintenance Facility in San Francisco. We're standing in front of a jet engine. If you want to learn more about commercial aircraft, see Boeing's web page at: http://www.boeing.com/. There's a good page for military aircraft too, at: http://www.theaviationzone.com/index.html

What factors from my childhood may have prepared me for this career
I think the main influence that led me to aviation was my father's interest in flying. He took lessons, but was never able to finish his training. Supporting his family came first. He never lost his love for flying, though, and continued to learn all he could about advances in aviation. He even built a model airplane, without a kit, that he flew for us when I was a child. I was so amazed that someone could build his own airplane. I also spent a lot of time with my two brothers building model airplanes and flying model rockets. I read a lot of science fiction books as well.

How to prepare for a career like mine
I think the most important thing someone could do to prepare for a career in aviation safety is to take advantage of any opportunities to learn about aviation that come your way. I took my first aerodynamics class in sixth grade! It just happened to be a personal interest of the science and math teacher, so he offered a special class to students who were interested in flying. When you attend air shows, don't be afraid to talk with the pilots who are there; most will be thrilled to answer questions from a young person who's interested in a career in aviation. In addition, there are many professionals (at the Federal Aviation Administration, NTSB, or an airline) who will take time to talk with you about their career. If you call and ask for a few minutes of their time, many will be happy to talk with you about your future plans, especially if you are punctual, dress professionally, and remember that they are busy people. So come prepared with a list of questions and be prepared to talk about what you're interested in and why you chose them to talk with.

NASA has an internship program for high school students that anyone interested in a career in aviation safety or research should consider. It's called the Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (SHARP). This summer I will be mentoring a young man from Fremont for the second summer in a row. There are lots of opportunities to work with NASA people in different departments. You can find information about the program on the NASA educational resources web site at: http://ehb2.gsfc.nasa.gov/edcats/1999/nep/programs/ . Select the K-12 option and page down to the SHARP program. I'm sure there are lots of other programs available through NASA, this is just the one I'm familiar with.

There are also organized programs you can participate in to gain more knowledge in the aerospace sciences, such as the Young Eagles program, in which pilots take kids flying to encourage an interest in aviation, or the Civil Air Patrol. I would also encourage taking as many science and math classes as you can. A career in aviation safety requires an understanding of aerodynamics and the principles of flight, and researchers use statistical analyses to examine the data from their experiments. You don't have to be a pilot to work in aviation research, but it helps. And it's lots of fun!

How do I see my self in the future
While I enjoy aviation research, I would eventually like my career to progress to a position that is more directly involved with aviation. Perhaps as part of an airline training department, where I can work directly with pilots. I am also still interested in the NTSB and would like to give aircraft accident investigation a shot.

A little personal info
I share my home with a big black tiger cat named Rascal, who's nearly as well-traveled as I am! He was born in South Carolina and has moved with me from there to New York, Colorado, and to California. He's traveled all the way across the country by auto, as well as flying to Seattle with me this past Christmas. Along the way he has visited Virginia and Idaho. I'm not sure he enjoys traveling as much as I do, but he goes along. As you might have guessed, traveling is one of my favorite hobbies. I have visited 39 different states, with plans to see them all eventually. I've also been to Canada, England, and Scotland. I am currently planning a second trip to Scotland with my family, where we'll be staying at a real castle. This is a gathering of people from all over the US who are descended from the same Scottish clan. Tracing my genealogy is another of my hobbies. It's really interesting to learn where your ancestors came from and what kind of people they were. We even had family members fighting on both sides of the Civil War.

I am also a private pilot, although I haven't been able to fly much in a couple of years - graduate school is very expensive! I hope to get back into flying after I finish my degree. It's a great way to explore the area around your home. I also used to skydive. That's also a lot of fun and a great way to really learn about aerodynamics. If you can fly your body in free flight, you should definitely be able to fly an airplane! The earth looks really beautiful from 2 miles up when you've just stepped out of an airplane.

 

 
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