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 didnt 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 theyre 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 The gear had barely been retracted and we were climbing IFR over the top of a busy Class B airport when he uttered those fateful toddler words: I got to go potty.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 wasnt 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 guys nervous bladder again makes the call. Surely hes 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 youre expecting them (or when theyre convenient), then theyre not really distractions at all.
Have your priorities in mind at all times. Keep your skills honed enough that it doesnt take all your concentration to maintain some semblance of a heading or altitude. And if you have an autopilot installed, for heavens sake make sure it works and you know how to use it.