Information complexity--mental workload and performance in combat aircraft

Ergonomics. 1997 Mar;40(3):362-80. doi: 10.1080/001401397188206.


The purpose of the present study was to analyse the effects of information complexity on Pilot Mental WorkLoad (PMWL) and Pilot Performance (PP), and to analyse the structure of PMWL. Eighteen pilots performed 72 simulated low level-high speed emissions. The complexity of the Head Down Display (HDD) information varied as a function of the tactical situation. Flight data were recorded continuously. The pilots' eye movements were video taped and psychophysiological activation data, Heart Rate (HR), were obtained. The pilots rated PMWL according to the psychological content of three scales (Bedford Rating Scale, Subjective Workload Assessment Technique, NASA-Task Load indeX) and answered a questionnaire tapping aspects of performance, information load, motivation and mood. It was found that even a moderate complexity of information interfered with the flight task. Altitude and variation in altitude were increased and corrections of altitude errors were delayed, when complexity increased. Changes in information load reached its maximum influence on flight performance (r = 0.60, p < 0.001) after a time delay of 20 to 40 seconds. Performance of the flight task correlated positively (r = 0.59, p <0.001) with the performance of the information handling task (Tactical Situation Awareness, TSA). Durations and frequencies of eye fixations Head Up (HU) versus Head Down (HD) changed as a function of information load. A structural equation model implied that PMWL was affected by mission complexity and that PMWL affected objective and subjective aspects of flight performance and information handling. Heart rate (sortie means) correlated positively with PMWL (r = 0.34, p <0.05) and perceived complexity of mission (r = 0.37, p < 0.01). Heart rate (running means) covaried with variations in information complexity for those pilots who performed well. From spectral analyses of cardiac interval times it was found that the amplitude of the 0.10 Hz component tended to decrease during high as compared to low levels of information load.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aerospace Medicine
  • Affect
  • Aircraft / instrumentation
  • Data Display
  • Decision Making*
  • Ergonomics
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mental Processes*
  • Middle Aged
  • Military Personnel*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Psychophysiology
  • Sweden
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Workload*