Editor's Log

July 1999 Issue




Spelling Relief

Distractions don’t have to be life-threatening to be dangerous

Recently I was level at 9,000 feet, hand flying through moderate turbulence, when the GPS in the panel decided to give up the ghost. No warnings, no flags, it just went black.

I was on an airway at the time and had the VORs tuned, so there was no navigational problem, but the GPS conveniently gives an instant answer when the voice from the back asks, “How much longer?” As I looked over to troubleshoot the unit, I got too engrossed in following the error messages the Apollo was spitting out on rebooting it. When I looked back at the instruments, I was banked 30 degrees and had just begun an 800 fpm descent.

With the turbulence, I didn’t want to turn control over to the autopilot, so the GPS would just have to wait. It was a solid reminder, however, of the way distractions can cause trouble if they’re anything other than momentary.

The incident reminded me of a trip several years ago. My copilot was my son, 3 years old at the time. The gear had barely been retracted and we were climbing IFR over the top of a busy Class B airport when he uttered those fateful toddler words: “I got to go potty.”

My initial reaction, of course, was to ignore him, because I knew he had just used the facilities at the airport not 15 minutes before. Besides, I was much too busy to deal with it and wasn’t about to cancel my clearance and turn around. In a few moments, there were tears streaming down his face and he had a death grip on his crotch.

At about that time we had reached cruising altitude and were cleared on course. The airplane we were in had a squirrelly autopilot and a rigging problem that preventing trimming it for straight and level. I was forced to divide my attention between flying the airplane and helping him take care of business into an airsickness bag.

Although the altitude diversions that resulted never raised the ire of ATC, the attitude diversions made the next few minutes seem adventuresome.

Fast forward 30 minutes. The little guy’s nervous bladder again makes the call. Surely he’s just looking for attention, I told myself. But who can ignore the pleadings of one so young? Out came the bag again. This time we did a little better.

Both incidents serve as reminders that distractions can come from anywhere. And if they only happen when you’re expecting them (or when they’re convenient), then they’re not really distractions at all.

Have your priorities in mind at all times. Keep your skills honed enough that it doesn’t take all your concentration to maintain some semblance of a heading or altitude. And if you have an autopilot installed, for heaven’s sake make sure it works and you know how to use it.


-Ken Ibold