How do helicopter pilots know when to stop, turn or pull up?

Gareth D. Padfield, David N. Lee, Roy Bradley

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The title of this paper, posed as a question, reflects the current interest in gaining an improved understanding of visual perception in flight control to inform the development of design guidelines for future pilot vision aids. The paper develops the optical flow theory of visual perception into its most recent incarnation, tau-coupling, where tau is the time to closure to surfaces at current velocity. General tau-theory posits that the closure of any type of gap, using any form of sensory input, is guided by sensing and constantly adjusting the tau of the gap. According to the theory, and contrary to what might be expected, information about the distance to obstacles or the landing surface, for example, and about the speed and deceleration of approach, are not necessary for precise control of landing or stopping. Analysis is presented that supports the importance of tau-coupling in flight control. Results from simulation trials conducted at DERA and at The University of Liverpool demonstrate the considerable power of what we describe as tau-guides, that lead the pilot to adopt a prospective flight control strategy.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalJournal of the American Helicopter Society
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2003


    • helicopter pilots
    • flight control
    • visual perception


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