Lyon Air Museum Docent Jeff Erickson |

       The cockpits of modern aircraft are a dazzling display of avionics and automation. Wherein analog “steam gauges” once guided flight crews in the control, navigation and communication of aircraft, today those gauges have largely been replaced by computer screens that enable crews to control all aspects of flight with the aid of digital flight controls and a Flight Management System (FMS). These technologies not only reduce the workload of the pilots, but also enhance safety as automated systems monitor the aircraft during all phases of flight, from takeoff to touchdown.

     The key to making modern crew systems effective is the seamless and intuitive interaction between the humans flying the aircraft and the complex systems onboard. This is known as Hu-man-Systems Integration (HSI), a field of science that Lyon Air Museum Docent Jeff Erickson knows very well, as his 32-year career as an HSI specialist spanned the transition from traditional “steam gauges” to the second-generation of modern electronic cockpits.

     Jeff was bitten with the aviation bug during his childhood, courtesy of his father. “My dad was a Naval Air Crewman and aircraft mechanic during World War II. After the war he went to flight school and received his pilots license for seaplanes. He would take me flying often, but his real passion was military aviation. We would watch war movies and documentaries together, so a career in aviation became my destiny very early on.”

     After high school Jeff began attending California State University Long Beach, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. He then went on to graduate school, earning a Master of Science degree in Industrial Psychology in 1976. It was in graduate school where Jeff learned how to apply his education in psychology to a career in aviation. “I was halfway through graduate school when I took an elective class in Human Factors Engineering, which is also referred to as Ergonomics” Jeff recalls, “a light bulb switched on in my head when I took that class.”

     Human Factors Engineering, simply stated, is the application of knowledge about human capabilities and limitations in the design of products, systems and processes. Though an important factor in many applications, it is especially important in the aerospace industry, where a proper interface function between human and machine is critical for safe and efficient operation.

     Jeff secured an entry-level position at McDonnell Douglas Corporation (MDC), then one of the largest producers of civilian and military aircraft in the world. “When I was hired at MDC, the military aerospace industry was just starting to pull out of the slump that followed the Vietnam conflict. Within three years of joining the company, the Human Factors Engineering team had grown from seven people to over seventy. I eventually became the manager of this group.”

     The aerospace field proved a good fit for Jeff’s background and education. “When people think of psychology they tend to think of a clinical setting. I never wanted to apply my education in that way. I wanted to focus on research, statistical analysis and experiments. Human Factors Engineering in aerospace was perfect for me because it focuses heavily on those elements.”

     “Human Factors Engineering in aviation really began in World War II, particularly in cockpit design” Jeff remarks, “though we were working with modern turbine aircraft and state-of-the-art avionics, the scientific methods and lessons-learned from Human Factors in earlier generations of aircraft proved to be relevant and useful. The experience gained in applying these principles provided a solid foundation for the projects I worked on many decades later.” Jeff also earned a Private Pilot license in 1983 to supplement his academic qualifications as a cockpit designer.

   One of Jeff’s first projects at MDC was the MD-80 series commercial jetliner. “The MD-80 was an interim step toward the fully electronic cockpit. By the time I began working on the MD-11 in the mid-80s, digital avionics and automation had advanced to the point where large, wide body transports no longer required a flight engineer to manage on-board systems. The computers onboard handled routine monitoring tasks, allowing the pilot and co-pilot to focus on decision-making and flying the aircraft.”

Developmental cockpit simulator for the C-17 Globemaster III |

         Jeff also served four years as a member of the cockpit design team for the C-17 Globemaster III, a massive military transport aircraft still in widespread use today. Capable of transporting heavy cargo and personnel around the world, the C-17 is an integral part of the United States military’s global mission. “We had a difficult challenge in meeting Air Force requirements that the C-17 be capable of performing a wide array of airlift missions with only two pilots and a single loadmaster. This was half the number of crew members required by the previous generation of heavy airlifters. The solution to this problem required many technical innovations and extensive developmental testing.”   

During his career Jeff also served as a Human Factors specialist on several other aircraft development programs, including the A-4M/TA-4J Skyhawk, the KC-10 Tanker, Advanced Maritime Patrol Aircraft and the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) technology demonstration program.

     Though Jeff worked on a number of specific aircraft designs, most of his career was spent as an engineering manager in research and development for the advanced product organization known as Phantom Works. These projects were not tied to any particular aircraft program, but rather investigated enabling technologies for future systems envisioned by the Air Force and NASA. “I did a lot of work for NASA Langley Research Centerin Virginia. By that time in my career, the more common term for my specialty was Human-Systems Integration (HSI) rather than Human-Factors Engineering.” 

     The most significant NASA program Jeff worked on was known as High-Speed Research, a team effort involving Boeing, MDC and Honeywell as well as industry partners. This program was intended to develop and demonstrate enabling technologies for a 300 passenger supersonic High Speed Civil Transport (HSCT) capable of reaching mach 2.4. “I led the effort on cockpit design for MDC. Perhaps our biggest technical hurdle was designing a cockpit that would provide clear, unobstructed views for the pilots without having to droop the nose for takeoff and landing, as done on the Concorde. We were able to solve this problem through innovative use of advanced sensors, geo-spatial referencing and synthetic vision technologies. Unfortunately, the aircraft was never built due to economic and political issues, such as concern for sonic booms over populated areas.”

High Speed Civil Transport and Synthetic Vision Cockpit MockupHigh Speed Civil Transport and Synthetic Vision Cockpit Mockup

Perhaps Jeff’s greatest source of pride in his long career is his service as a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board ( Members of this prestigious group are appointed by the Secretary of Defensefrom among the nation's leading experts in science, technology, and engineering. The purpose of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) is to provide advice to Air Force leaders on issues of science and technology related to the USAF mission. Jeff served two terms as a member of the SAB and an additional four years as a consultant.  He participated in seven major studies and reviews, serving as a panel chairman on three occasions.  In 2004, he was asked to lead an in-depth study on Human-Systems Integration in Air Force Weapons Systems, requested by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General John Jumper. The findings and recommendations of the study were well-received, resulting in substantial improvements to USAF policy, organization and standards for HSI. Jeff was asked to brief results of the study to the leaders of all USAF Major Commands.  “Looking back, the SAB is where my work probably had the greatest overall impact, and I was honored to be a part of it.”  In recognition of his contributions on the SAB, Jeff was awarded the Air Force Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest USAF decoration for civilians.

   Jeff and other members of the SAB getting ready to board an Air Force E-8 JSTARS                  

                   After the Merger of Boeing and MDC, Jeff decided to leave the management career path and pursue a new role as part of the unique Boeing Technical Excellence Program.  He was nominated by Phantom Works management and selected as a Technical Fellow of the Boeing Company in 1999.  Three years later, he was promoted to an executive position as Senior Technical Fellow, and was the first HSI specialist to hold this position at Boeing. In 2002, Jeff was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society of Great Britain.  Jeff retired from Boeing in 2009, though he continued to work within the aerospace industry as a consultant for anumber of years afterward.

D-Day Airborne Operations exhibit created by Jeff Erickson

     Today Jeff generously donates his time to the American Aviation Historical Society ( and Lyon Air Museum, where he serves as curator of new exhibits covering such topics as the Congressional Medal of Honor, D-Day Airborne Operations, and the Air War in Vietnam. Jeff is currently working on a number of new displays for the museum that will further enhance the experience of museum guests.  Jeff also serves as a member of the writing team for the museum, and has authored a number of historical articles and blog posts on topics of interest to aviation enthusiasts.

     Lyon Air Museum is proud to have Jeff Erickson as a part of our docent team. His experience and expertise has been invaluable in the creation of displays that not only illustrate the story of the conflicts and wars in our nation’s history, but also tell the personal stories of the heroes who fought for the preservation of freedom and liberty in the United States of America. 

Article by Dan Heller