Distractions Rabbit Hole

All too often, distraction is the root cause of common accidents-and even mechanical failures.


Shortly after buying my Cessna 180, I decided an upgrade to slightly larger tires would help the plane better handle Idaho’s backcountry strips. That turned out to be a great decision, but not for the obvious benefit of landing with larger tires on rough runways. When the mechanic popped the hubcaps to expose the retaining nut holding the wheel to the axle, he discovered it was about ready to fall off. The nut did not have the required cotter pin to secure it. Only one turn of the nut with just normal finger pressure was needed to remove the wheel. Yikes!

“You were a landing or two away from that main wheel coming off,” my mechanic told me. “I bet I know what caused it.”

“What?” I asked, expecting to hear him describe some esoteric mechanical root cause.

“One of these,” he said, waving his cellphone. “I bet the mechanic was about finished when he got a phone call,” he speculated. “He either kept working while on the phone, or he left and came back to a half-finished job. He didn’t do it slow or fast, he did it half-fast.”

Devices As A Root Cause

By now, we all know what happens when people are transfixed by their handheld devices, heads down, eyes fixed, ears deaf. They are essentially oblivious to everything around them. I recently watched a YouTube video collection showing people using smartphones as they walked into signs and poles, fell into fountains and even walked off piers. I can admit my own phone distraction events. If you claim immunity, you are either a Luddite or a liar.

There are good reasons to use devices in the cockpit, particularly to enhance situational awareness. For example, I check my phone or tablet for weather or to confirm my position on a moving map relative to the high terrain around me. The terrain-avoidance graphics on my iPad are much more legible and feature higher resolution than the certified instruments in some panels. Just the other day, I avoided a TFR that was shown on a portable device but was missing from the XM satellite data displayed on my certified avionics equipment.

It is all well and good to follow FAA guidance for preflight requiring that we avail ourselves of “all available information,” and you can rationalize the use of tablets and smartphones all you want (as indeed, I just have), but that quick glance for winds aloft can easily become a full-bore distraction into reading the forecast while you are flying. Beware going down the rabbit hole of “all available information.” That applies to preflight actions—once you are in the air, continuing to chase your briefing moves you away from the more important task of flying.

I know someone who inadvertently flew into a cloud while flying in a canyon…what? How could this be? Clouds don’t just appear out of nowhere. The only explanation is he was looking at a terrain view, perhaps on the GPS, but more likely on his tablet, instead of looking outside the window. That’s the aviation equivalent of walking into a sign or off a pier, only without the brutal contact at the end. Yet. Of course, having a terrain-avoidance view adds a great deal of situational awareness, especially when flying below terrain—but it shouldn’t become so demanding that you end up in a cloud because you are looking down. It is far more important to be looking at the actual terrain and weather conditions outside the cockpit.

So the first rule to avoid falling into the rabbit hole of distraction is to glance with a purpose. If you use a device to gather information, get it, then go back to flying. Exercise discipline. Limit yourself with deliberate glances, not full-on stares.

Protect The Sacred 60

Whether your flying is for business or pleasure, it is never exclusively about aviating. It is a means to an end with a lot of associated logistics. There are schedules to coordinate, people to contact and arrangements to be made on either end of a trip. You may have an important meeting at your destination. It may be the start of a well-deserved vacation. But distractions can take your mind off more important tasks.

Through his Airspeed podcast, aviator Steve Tupper introduced me to the concept of the Sacred 60 Minutes (see the sidebar above). In the air show world, it is de rigeur to leave the show pilots completely alone for the 60 minutes before their performance. They need the time to visualize their performance sequence and get the airplane ready so they are singularly focused on what is a particularly intense form of aviating.

All of us regular aviating sods should follow their lead. There are often distracting circumstances leading up to and surrounding many of our flights. Maybe you have yet to confirm a rental car at your destination, but don’t let the lack of ground transportation prevent you from arriving because you failed to brief the weather. When you are in flight-prep mode, consider that your Sacred 60. Focus only on what is necessary for the flight itself. Pick up the weather, brief your trip, preflight your aircraft and brief your passengers. Try to let everything else go, and don’t let others interfere.

Sharing With Others

We aviators are uniquely positioned to see views and sights that earth-bound humans will never see. It is natural to want to capture and share our excitement with others—not just the amazing views we see, but the sheer delight of flying. For example, there was a crash in Denver where a low-time pilot attempted taking a selfie at night with low ceilings.

There are inherent risks in capturing our experience while flying so we can share it with others. Taking photos or videos while flying is risky; taking them during takeoffs and landings is even riskier. But videos and photos aren’t the only way we share. If our phone is not in airplane mode, we may also inadvertently receive texts, emails and phone calls.

Several years ago, in my “teenage” piloting years, I was on final coming over the threshold at the Memaloose airstrip above Hells Canyon when my phone starting ringing. Even though I was on short final, I was unable to overcome the Pavlovian response to see who was calling, even though I had much more important things to do. Nothing untoward happened, but I should have been looking for deer on the runway or simply flying the darn plane, which are both a lot more important than whoever just called. They can leave a message; a deer will leave dents and bloodstains.


Anything we are capable of holding in our fingers is something we are capable of dropping. All too often, the item ends up just out of reach. We obsess, which can create a false sense of urgency that the object dropped must be recovered now. We are making a mistake when we strive to recover dropped items or reach for things that are a bit beyond our grasp, especially when those items are unimportant. There are literally dozens of NTSB reports of people who lost control of aircraft while trying to recover dropped items.

Whether it is ADD or OCD, the challenge we face is keeping in mind our primary duty: to fly the airplane. If it isn’t actually jamming a flight control or has that potential, the lip balm can stay on the floor. Don’t let your OCD interfere with the only important task you have. Leave it.

Nine Rules to help you Avoid the Rabbit Hole of distraction

Gear up

Glance With A Purpose

If you look at a device or display for specific information, obtain it, then immediately go back to flying the airplane.

Embrace The Sacred 60

Try to let go of every task not directly involved with the safe planning and operation of your flight in the hour before takeoff. See the sidebar on page 9.

Share Wisely

Don’t let the urge to take a great selfie distract you from the task of flying the airplane in critical moments.

Double-Think Flight Activities

When the weather’s at minimums, is the final approach segment really the best time to call Unicom about the rental car?

Identify And Ignore Trivialities

Dropped a pen cap while loading a procedure into your GPS navigator? Forget about it—it’ll be there when you shut down. Retrieve it then.

Indulge Flight Safety Before Curiosity

As pilots, we have the opportunity to view some really amazing things from the air. Don’t let those sights distract you from the tasks at hand.

Expand The Sterile Cockpit Concept

During critical flight phases and any time we’re close to the ground is not the right point to be doing or talking about anything not related to aviating.

Organize Your Cockpit

Climbing through 12,500 feet is not a good time to remember your portable oxygen bottle is in the rear baggage compartment.

Fly The Airplane

Ensuring the airplane gets off the ground and back is why you’re in the left seat. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted from accomplishing Job One.

Visual Distractions

While taxiing, a friend noticed some interesting barriers placed near the taxiways. While he tried to identify whether they were for construction or an upcoming air show, he drifted past the hold short line and onto the runway. Oops.

One of the many reasons we fly is the views and perspective are unbeatable. Most of us have interests that arouse our curiosity while we are flying—wildlife on the ground, fires, a warbird on final below us or trying to trace our way to our childhood home. We are entitled to look at objects of interest on the ground or in the air, but not at the expense of flight safety. Before you indulge yourself, assess the situation. Are you low? Are you near terrain, clouds or other aircraft? Don’t get carried away by your curiosity.

Expand The Sterile Cockpit

Aviation is not very forgiving, particularly on departure or arrival. Work loads are high and the aircraft a bit more precarious, either due to high angle of attack, proximity to the ground or both.

The sterile cockpit concept isn’t just about avoiding conversations and chit-chat during arrival and departure, it also means deferring unimportant tasks, like putting the map, pen or flashlight away. Tidying up, picking up dropped items or closing doors that pop open can wait for cruise flight or post-flight. When in critical phases of flight, basically anytime you feel busy, just focus on flying. Don’t get distracted by things that aren’t flight-related.

The flip side of this coin involves knowing when you can get by without a 100-percent focus on the airplane. Those occasions usually are in cruise flight, perhaps on autopilot, when the correct fuel tank has been selected, your weather information updated and a revised ETA established, at least in your mind and on the fuel totalizer. The point is to ask yourself if you really need to do something not associated with flying the airplane now? Will it be safer at a different phase of flight?

Organize Ahead Of Time

Chefs practice an efficiency technique called mise en place that means having all their equipment and ingredients out, measured, and ready to use before they begin cooking. Pilots should practice a similar technique.

You can minimize the potential for distraction when everything you need is at hand and ready to use. Think about what each phase of flight requires. Will you need a pen, a plate, a map, or a gadget? The time to fumble for a pen to take down clearances or grab the approach plate or sectional to check a frequency isn’t at the final approach fix. Having an organized cockpit with everything you need available for given phases of flight is an excellent way to avoid future distractions.

Aviate With Deliberation

Distraction is one of the leading root causes of aviation accidents. It causes people to land with the gear up, to fly into clouds and into terrain. It causes mechanics to fail to place cotter pins or safety wire where they are needed. It causes pilots chatting with their passengers to fail to catch potential problems during preflight inspections.

It is undeniable that smartphones and cameras can interfere with our most critical tasks. But everything around us can be a distraction. The one inoculation we have against our all-too-human traits is being brutally self-honest and exerting rational self-control when our lizard brains want us to do something else. Sometimes the urge to look at the phone or reach for that damn pen or map that is just out of reach feels overwhelming. But it isn’t. It just takes some self-discipline, judgment, discretion and the will to contain your whimsy, even if it means talking to yourself out loud. Don’t allow external stimulus to take your mind off your primary task—flying the plane. There is a time and place for everything.

Mike Hart is an Idaho-based flight instructor and proud owner of a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub and a Cessna 180. He also is the Idaho liaison to the Recreational Aviation Foundation.


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