September 2015 Issue

How It Goes Off The Rails

According to Dismukes and his researchers in a presentation, “The Hidden Complexity of Cockpit Operations,” conventional wisdom tells us “pilots become accustomed to concurrent task demands, interruptions, distractions and disruptions” while the truth is “pilots routinely manage multiple, competing, concurrent task demands just fine.” At least until there’s an interruption. The presentation lists four situations when pilots are vulnerable to omissions when performing routine tasks:


The classic example is missing a checklist item thanks to a distraction in the cockpit—ATC with your clearance, for example. It’s important to remember where we were, or start that particular checklist again.

Performing tasks outside their normal sequence

Instead of dive-bombing your way into home plate as you usually do, ATC has you doing the last 10 miles or so just above the treetops following slower traffic. You drop a notch of flaps, but wait on the gear, which is opposite your normal procedure. Guess what happens next?

Performing new, unanticipated tasks

Pilots are biased toward their expectations. If we expect to take off from a certain runway, assignment of a different one sometimes doesn’t penetrate.

Interleave multiple tasks

Another classic example is programming the magic with your revised clearance while taxiing to the active. Try to do one thing at a time, and do it well, especially when the only stress present is self-imposed.