In the 1950s, the US Air Force launched a study into the causes of pilot errors and part of that study focused on the physical dimensions of the pilots and their cockpit control systems. The cockpits had been initially designed based on assumed physical averages of pilots and it was assumed that pilots had grown larger over time and that the design needed to be updated.
This story comes from the book The End of Average by Todd Rose (Harper Collins, 2016). Rose has given a TEDx talk on the subject of averages and is a leading proponent of an interdisciplinary field called “The Science of the Individual”.
It fell to 23-year-old Lt. Gilbert Daniels to lead the painstaking process of carefully measuring over 4,000 pilots on 140 different physcial dimensions and then analyze the results. Along the way, Daniels got the idea to go beyond the initial plan to compute the averages of all 140 dimensions in order to construct what the military deemed the “average pilot.” Daniels wanted to know just how many of the 4,000 pilots he had measured actually were average—i.e., how many fit the computed values the military was aiming to use to redesign the airplane cockpits?
By taking just ten of the many dimensions he was working with (height, chest size, sleeve length, etc.), Daniels constructed what he defined as the average pilot. Daniels also posited that anyone who fell within a 30% range of the target number for a dimension ...