Failure To Multitask?

Pilots have to be able to do more than one thing at a time, without thinking or becoming complacent.


Whenever Im around non-pilots and the subject of personal aviation comes up, the conversation inevitably turns to the skill set one needs to safely operate an aircraft. (Im sure this is nothing new and has happened to you.) My generic answer is something to the effect of if you can drive a stick-shift car, you can fly a fixed-wing airplane; the motor skill requirements are pretty much the same.

Of course, thats not the end of it, especially if youve never driven a stick but have several thousand hours of flight time; in addition to the requisite motor skills, pilots also must be able to prioritize tasks, often performing one or more simultaneously. An example of the latter might involve maneuvering in a traffic pattern while conversing with ATC over the radio and changing the engines power setting, all at the same time. When the smoke clears, its not unlike downshifting, braking and turning a stick-shift car, all at the same time.

Of course, theres more to flying than these simplistic examples, the vast majority of which involves thinking through a maneuver, configuration change or other specific operation well before you need to execute it. When the time comes for execution, it is performed almost automatically, even as youre thinking ahead to the next few steps you must take to safely and efficiently do your pilot “thing.”

Thats when things are going well, when the weather hasnt cratered, when theres no kid in the back seat projectile vomiting through the turbulence onto your brand-new MFD and when some airplane system or another hasnt soiled the bed. When things are going poorly, thinking ahead to the next few tasks also should be automatic, though. In fact, your training should take hold and there really shouldnt be much thinking at all-just execution of the steps required to resolve the problem. And it often is, at least for those whove been trained well and practice what theyve been taught.

One of the real dangers of flying arises when we get complacent about things: when the weather is clear and a million, when its smooth as glass and the engines are purring. Thats when we sometimes drop the multitasking ball. Heres an example of how that ball can get dropped and the consequences.


On January 14, 2008, at 0508 Hawaiian standard time, a Hawker Beechcraft Corporation 1900C, was lost from radar over the ocean about 6.5 nm south of the Lihue Airport, Lihue, Hawaii. The airplane was being operated as an on-demand all-cargo flight under FAR Part 135. The solo airline transport pilot, who was not located, is presumed to have been killed and the airplane destroyed. Dark night visual conditions prevailed; an IFR flight plan had been filed. The flight departed Honolulu International Airport, Honolulu, Hawaii, at 0443 for Lihue.

Approaching Lihue at 0503:30, ATC instructed the accident flight to “Follow the Boeing 737, cleared visual approach to Lihue airport. Radar service terminated. Change to advisory frequency approved and report on the ground please.” A few seconds later, the pilot replied, “Okay, well follow him in visual approach and, ah, were switching (unreadable). So long.”

At 0507:58, the flight was lost from radar about 6.5 miles south-southeast of the airport at an altitude of minus 100 feet msl. At 0515:17 and 0518:06, ATC attempted to reestablish contact with the pilot, but was unsuccessful. There was no distress call on the frequency, nor was there any indication that there was a problem.


Water depths in the search area were up to 4800 feet. Debris was identified and collected.

According to the operator, the pilot was making his first flight after coming off a rest period. Witnesses reported the pilot appeared to be in good spirits and alert before his flight. Since an earlier flight had been canceled due to a low volume of mail, the pilot slept for approximately two hours before getting ready for the accident flight.

Weather observed at the Lihue Airport at 0453 included wind from 030 degrees at 23 knots with gusts to 27 knots, 10 miles visibility, cloud layers scattered at 4100 feet and an overcast at 5500 feet.

As part of its investigation, an NTSB human performance investigator documented the nighttime visual cues as seen from several airborne fixes located near the ground track of the accident airplane during dark, night visual conditions. During the observation flight, very low levels of celestial illumination were observed. The ocean was completely dark. The lights on the island were grouped into two distinct areas during the approach into the airport: a bright area to the right and a fainter area to the left. No other lights were visible and all of the unlit terrain was completely dark.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilots spatial disorientation and loss of situational awareness. Contributing to the accident were the dark night and the task requirements of simultaneously monitoring the cockpit instruments and the other airplane.”

The NTSBs abstract of this accident states, in part that the lack of visual cues, “increased the importance of monitoring flight instruments to maintain awareness of the airplane attitude and altitude. The pilots tasks during the approach, however, included maintaining visual separation from the airplane ahead and lining up with the destination runway. These tasks required visual attention outside the cockpit. These competing tasks probably created shifting visual frames of reference, left the pilot vulnerable to common visual and vestibular illusions, and reduced his awareness of the airplanes attitude, altitude and trajectory.”

In other words, the NTSB saw fit to partially blame the accident on the pilot trying to do two things at once: fly the airplane and keep preceding traffic in sight.

A night visual approach, even to a familiar airport, is nothing to be trifled with, especially when few visual cues are available. But perhaps the pilots familiarity with the destination, his fully-rested state and the routine nature of the overall operation lulled him into complacency. Why he failed to adequately monitor progress on an approach he likely made several times before is anyones guess, but flying the airplane and monitoring the preceding traffic at the same time should not have overly taxed his skills.

These tasks are the sorts of things all pilots must be able to do, often without thinking.


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