Aviation human factors expert remembered

Photo: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

One of Australia’s foremost experts on aviation safety, Dr Rob Lee AO, died on 27 April, following a brave battle with cancer. He was an academic psychologist who applied the insights of the profession to aviation, both in the analysis of past accidents and efforts to prevent future accidents.

Robert Bruce Lee was born on 24 September 1943 and graduated from the Australian National University in 1970, with first-class honours in psychology, and the Australian Psychological Society Prize. In 1974, he completed a PhD in psychology at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. His research topic was human performance in complex systems, in particular aircraft.

In 1976 Lee was appointed senior psychologist, with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), where he became the first service psychologist to serve as a human factors specialist on aircraft accident investigation teams.

In 1983 he joined the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI) as its first human factors specialist. He established and developed BASI’s capability in human factors, systems safety and research.

Lee became director of BASI in 1989. During his directorship he transformed the Bureau from a purely reactive investigative agency to an innovative multi-skilled organisation that concentrated equally on proactive accident prevention and safety enhancement. He also negotiated memorandums of understanding to increase practical cooperation in air safety investigation in the Asia Pacific region with Indonesia, Singapore and Taiwan.

In 1999 he was appointed director of human factors, systems safety and communications of the newly established Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB). In 2000 he set up his own company, and soon developed an international reputation as consultant in human factors and systems safety in aviation and other high-consequence industries.

His work in this capacity included human factors analysis of the Gulf Air A320 accident at Bahrain in August 2000, the Singapore Airlines Boeing 747 runway accident at Taipei in October 2000, and the mid-air collision between a Boeing 757 and a Russian Tupelov 154M over Ueberlingen, Germany, in 2002.

Rob was a member of the expert panel on safety management systems appointed by the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Waterfall rail accident in January 2003. He also served on the advisory board of the NSW Independent Transport Safety and Reliability Regulator, and the nuclear safety committee of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

Rob also remained a group captain in the RAAF Specialist Reserve, as a consultant and lecturer, advising boards of inquiry into the navy Sea King crash in Indonesia in 2005 and the Black Hawk accident on HMAS Kanimbla in 2006.

He lectured at the Singapore Aviation Academy and co-conducted a highly regarded annual course for the European Association for Aviation Psychology.

In 2012 he was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to aviation safety.

ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood paid tribute to Lee, on a professional and personal level. ‘Whilst he will long be remembered for such a significant contribution to aviation safety, he will also be remembered for his warmth, his love for his partner Sue and his family, his infectious smile, his international diplomacy, and for his musicianship, as lead guitarist in the Canberra band Mid-Life Crisis,’ Hood said.

CASA Section Manager Safety Management, Charles Galea, worked with Lee in safety investigation. He said Lee had contributed significantly to safety in many countries across various modes of transport. ‘Rob was certainly a global authority on safety management, but his knowledge and influence was often sought beyond aviation circles—he was instrumental to the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Waterfall Rail Accident as a member of the Safety Management Systems Expert Panel,’ Galea said. ‘Rob’s leadership drove the Inquiry pathways that would ultimately shape rail safety both in Australia and abroad. Rob was a king-pin in what was, and still remains, Australia’s most in-depth examination of Safety Management Systems—the outcomes from Waterfall drove new standards in rail safety and also influenced aviation and marine.’

‘Through his academic insights, management acumen and diplomatic skills Rob Lee was a public servant, in the truest sense of the word—as well as being the nicest bloke one could ever have the privilege of working with and learning from,’ he said. ‘Thousands of members of the travelling public who board aircraft each day have Rob Lee, in part, to thank for their safety. Although his legacy will remain, it’s sad to think we’ve lost the patriarch of aviation safety in Australia.’

CASA sends its condolences to Rob Lee’s partner Sue and his daughter Amanda. His funeral will be held on 4 May in Canberra.



  1. A pioneer in the aviation human factors arena. It was a pleasure to meet you at various conferences on aviation safety. One of natures gentlemen. RIP

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