Distracted Maneuvers

Performing the emergency gear-extension checklist-or any other-isnt a good reason to stop flying the airplane.


Flying has been said to involve hours and hours of boredom populated with moments of sheer terror. Of course, if were doing it right, there might be a number of times when were very busy, but avoiding the moments of sheer terror is what its all about. Indeed, one of the things separating seasoned pilots from those with less experience involves how we respond when things dont go as we planned.

Another difference between the two involves dealing with the kind of everyday distractions that crop up in the cockpit. In fact, the FAAs practical test standards states, “[t]he examiner shall cause realistic distractions during the flight portion of the practical test to evaluate the applicants ability to divide attention while maintaining safe flight” (emphasis added). And, theyre doing their job, instructors also should be injecting distractions-idle conversation, questions about unrelated knowledge and skills, for example-into our training.

The idea isnt to trip us up (well, okay, sometimes it is). Instead, the goal here is to test our ability to divide our attention among various tasks, all while keeping the aircrafts shiny side up. Regardless of whats going on in our minds, in the seat next to us or back in the office, we still have to fly the airplane. Thats job one.

Too often, however, we find what really should be a minor distraction at worst soon occupies all of our thinking ability. When this happens in a cockpit, accidents follow. The poster-child example is the December 29, 1972, crash of a Lockheed L-1011 operating as Eastern Air Lines Flight 401. While troubleshooting what turned out to be a failed light bulb in the nosegear position indicating system, the autopilots altitude-hold mode was inadvertently deselected. The airplane began a gentle descent that escaped the seasoned crews notice as they focused on the landing gear and crashed into the Florida Everglades.

Whether were training, going for a checkride or trying to get somewhere, distractions happen. When they do, our job is to prioritize our tasks, always placing flying the airplane at the top of the list.


On December 22, 2008, at 1220 Mountain time, a Piper PA-46-310P Malibu registered to and operated by the pilot was destroyed when it collided with terrain following a loss of control during an instrument landing system (ILS) runway 10 approach to the Yampa Valley Airport (HDN), Hayden, Colo.

Instrument conditions prevailed; the flight was operating on an instrument flight plan. The private pilot-in-command and commercial pilot on board the airplane were fatally injured. The cross-country flight originated at Hutchison (HUT), Kansas, at 1010 Central time and was en route to HDN. The two pilots, husband and wife, were returning to HDN after an annual inspection had been performed on the airplane at HUT.

While maneuvering for the ILS Runway 10 approach at HDN, the flight reported “having trouble with getting the gear down…were trying to turn back in and do our gear here all at the same time.” At 1218:12, the pilot reported the gear was down and ATC cleared them to contact HDNs CTAF. The Malibu never arrived.


Aided by ELT signals, the wreckage was located at approximately 1645. Radar plots indicate the airplane crossed the localizer at almost a 90-degree angle and continued turning right until it started to intercept the localizer. Then it began a left turn that continued until radar coverage was lost, which occurred at 1920:11. It was about the time the pilot reported the landing gear was down that the airplane entered the left turn.

The accident site was at 6563 feet and 10.5 miles and on 289 degrees from HDN. Evidence indicates the airplane impacted a grass-covered meadow near the base of a small hill in a wings-level, 60-degree nose-down attitude on a heading of 235 degrees. Both wing-flap jackscrews were in the retracted position, and the landing gear actuators were extended. The emergency gear extension knob was pulled out to its full travel. Control continuity was established to all controls and no airframe anomalies were noted.

At 1215, an automated weather observation at HDN included wind from 350 degrees at four knots, visibility of 2.5 statute miles, a few clouds at 1500 feet, scattered clouds at 3200 feet and a broken layer at 4400 feet.

Radar plots reveal the airplane overflew HDN at 11,400 feet and proceeded outbound for the procedure turn, descending to 10,800 feet. At 10,200 feet, a right turn was begun to intercept the localizer. The airplane, however, overshot the localizer as it was passing through 9650 feet. The right turn continued back towards the localizer and the airplane descended to 9400 feet. Ground speed was 85 knots.

The airplane then initiated a left turn away from the localizer that terminated near the accident site. The turn was captured by six radar plots. The first plot (1218:47) showed at 9200 feet a groundspeed of 152 knots. At the second plot (1218:59), altitude had increased to 9700 feet and groundspeed was 132 knots. By the third plot (1219:11), altitude had increased further to 10,200 feet and groundspeed had dropped to 76 knots. The fourth plot (1219:23) showed the airplane had made almost a 180-degree turn and was at 8900 feet and a groundspeed of 120 knots. At the fifth plot (1219:47), the airplane was at 8700 feet and 20 knots. The sixth and final plot (1220:11) showed the airplane at 8400 feet and 38 knots.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of this accident to include: “The pilots loss of situational awareness while maneuvering in adverse weather conditions, resulting in spatial disorientation.”

The record makes it clear the two pilots were involved in the emergency gear extension checklist while maneuvering the airplane for the procedure turn and attempting to complete the approach. The altitude, heading and speed excursions seem to indicate very little attention to flying the airplane was being paid.

When two qualified pilots are aboard in such a situation, one should be tasked with flying the airplane and the other with running the checklist. When were alone, we have to divide our time between these tasks, but we always have to fly the airplane. In such an event, its advisable to go into a holding pattern somewhere while troubleshooting the gear.

In this accident, it appears two relatively experienced pilots let a distraction overwhelm them and forgot about flying the airplane.


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