Mission Interruptus

Troubling words from a pilots mouth: Uh, where were we?


One of the most common pitfalls in the aviation environment is distraction, where Murphys Law seems to apply all too well. It seems like questions from others always wait until youre in the middle of an important task, such as transferring fuel or following a checklist, at which time you suddenly become a popular person. Those times when youre busy just trying to control the aircraft, ATC will call with a routing change. It seems like it never fails.

A review of the NTSBs general aviation accident records from 1996 through 2000 yields 219 accidents that were primarily caused by distractions.

One thing I noticed is that it appeared that better initial pilot training could have prevented an overwhelming number of distraction-related accidents. Because distractions will always be present in the aviation environment, its imperative that pilots learn how to manage distractions better.

Pay Attention to the Task At Hand
An astounding number of accidents occurred because the pilots simply werent paying attention to the immediate task at hand. For example, during a dual instructional flight in gusty winds and high density altitude conditions, a flight instructor was busy waving at the people in front of the hangar while the student took off.

The flight instructor failed to notice the aircraft struggling to get airborne in the thin air, and didnt notice that the aircraft was unable to maintain sufficient airspeed. The aircraft stalled and crashed.

If you didnt get the point with that example, try this one. A pilot was taxiing his twin-engine aircraft between hangars and instead of paying attention to aircraft control in relatively cramped confines, he twisted around to grab some paperwork behind his seat. In doing so, he failed to maintain a visual look out and collided with one of the hangars, resulting in some very expensive damage.

Overall, I found 25 accidents during the taxi phase of flight caused by the pilot becoming distracted with non-essential items. While taxiing, especially in tight confines, a pilots attention needs to be primarily outside the aircraft maintaining a visual lookout.

Its also disappointing to see the number of accidents that stemmed from misplaced attention during preflight inspection activities. One flight instructor in the accident database was busy talking with another employee of the FBO and didnt monitor the refueling. The airplane ran out of fuel during cruise flight.

When you walk onto the flight line and approach the aircraft, 100 percent of your attention should be focused on the aircraft and its environment. Instructors should make sure that students of all levels learn the importance of staying on task during preflight.

Furthermore, it should be plainly obvious that critical phases of flight require your devoted attention, but it remains the case that pilots get distracted easily.

The FAA instituted the sterile cockpit rule for air carriers after several notorious accidents in which the crews attention was diverted to non-pertinent tasks. The same principle should apply to general aviation cockpits. Primary flight instruction needs to instill and reinforce the proper habit patterns of maintaining proper focus and attention on the tasks at hand. Students need to be shown where to place their priorities and to ignore the distractions that arent important.

Equipment Failures
Some distractions are important and need immediate attention, such as most equipment malfunctions. I discovered 47 accidents during the period studied that were precipitated by real or perceived mechanical failures.

Diagnosing equipment failures can take time and mental energy, and generally speaking these are distractions you cant ignore. But in dealing with them, many pilots screw up.

First and foremost, the most important task a pilot must do is to maintain control of the aircraft. The accident files revealed 118 accidents in which the pilot failed to maintain aircraft control while trying to deal with some kind of equipment problem.

People recite the mantra fly the airplane, but dont seem to put it into practice when the chips are down. In military flight training, the priority of aircraft control is instilled from the first moment.

A former naval aviator with two tours over North Vietnam was flying a homebuilt aircraft last year when it caught fire. The heat was so debilitating that it was burning the skin from his hands when he manipulated the controls. It had to be excruciatingly painful. Despite the pain, he kept aircraft control until rolling out after landing, at which time he was overwhelmed by the smoke. Yes, maintaining aircraft control is that important.

When dealing with a mechanical malfunction, you must divide your attention between aircraft control and resolving the malfunction. To resolve the problem most efficiently, there is no substitute for thoroughly knowing the aircrafts systems. Know the emergency procedures without hesitation, be familiar with abnormal procedures and know where to look in the checklists for other procedures.

You might also consider marking critical circuit breakers in some fashion. (The emergency procedures section will tell you which ones.) It certainly helps when you need to find one of these critical circuit breakers during the chaos of an emergency. It also will allow you to more efficiently split your attention between resolving the problem and maintaining aircraft control.

There is a sub-category of mechanical problems that really should be non-events but continue to pop up in accident statistics. Thirteen accidents occurred after a door or window opened on takeoff.

If you are still on the runway with sufficient room to abort, this becomes a very simple decision. Abort, taxi clear of the runway, and then secure the door. If you have rotated for takeoff and have insufficient runway to abort, you are committed to the climb. This is still a very manageable situation. Maintain aircraft control, period.

The door isnt going to fly off the aircraft and its rare for an aircrafts handling to be hurt much by the trailing door. Its noisy, but thats really the only practical effect on most GA aircraft.

If you happen to be flying a light twin and the door pops open, your hand could get very close to the propellers arc. Make sure your front seat passenger knows this, too.

Cockpit Management
Distractions with minor cockpit duties caused 30 of the accidents. Far too many reports in this study found pilots distracted by such tasks as trying to dig out maps and approach plates, or picking up loose items. You arent able to keep an adequate visual scan outside the cockpit if you are concentrating inside the cockpit for a lengthy period of time.

That explains some of the 62 accidents in this study in which pilots hit hangars, radio towers, other aircraft or the sides of mountains. Failure to maintain an adequate visual lookout was the second leading consequence of these distractions.

For example, one pilot decided to program his GPS during his initial climb out. While he was head-down, he had a mid-air with another aircraft. Another pilot was trying to fold his maps while cruising at 1,000 feet agl. He had the misfortune of hitting a tall tower.

Organizing the items you will need for the flight is a very important task, and thats one habit that doesnt get ingrained in new pilots early enough. Many instructors pooh-pooh the need to even carry charts, since they fly similar training missions all the time and know all the radio frequencies by heart. What does that teach a neophyte about cockpit resource management?

Having your approach charts organized so that you can quickly pull them out for reference is absolutely vital, especially when flying in real clouds or busy airspace. Folding maps so that they unfold in a convenient manner for the rest of your flight is a trick that your flight instructor could have shown you, but may not have.

All loose items should be secured in place during your preflight check. Anything that might pop loose and roll under your seat or into the flight controls needs to be tied down or otherwise secured.

Nav aids and radio frequencies should be tuned ahead of time. GPS coordinates should be plugged in either when the airplane is on the ground or during a low-workload period with the autopilot engaged. Having all of the necessary radio and navigational aid materials quickly available is important.

If you are flying with your favorite frequent flyer companion, use them to help keep your charts organized and to hand you the appropriate charts when you ask. Anything that allows you to maintain your attention on the aircraft, its systems and its flight path is a wise use of resources.

Outside, Inside
Looking for other traffic is a vital task during all phases of flying. It becomes a problem for those who concentrate so intently on their traffic scan that they lose control of the aircraft. That was the case in 29 accidents.

One unfortunate soul was making his takeoff roll when he heard another aircraft announce over the common traffic advisory frequency the intent to land on the opposite runway.

You have to give credit for the pilots situational awareness in that he was actively listening to the radio and maintaining an awareness of the traffic situation around him. He also could see the potential for conflict should the other aircraft fly a final approach straight into his departure path.

Our victim looked up to scan ahead. In doing so, he lost directional control and ran off the runway. Its a classic case of good intention but unfortunate ending.

When possible, with all other safety considerations met (wind direction, etc), it would help if everyone used the same traffic pattern. In crowded skies, standard procedures help enhance everyones safety. Its generally best to fly the recommended pattern entry, to use the radio to announce your position, and to listen to the radio to help you scan the sky.

One reoccurring weak area that stands out clearly in the accident database is reconfiguring the aircraft during a touch and go. The transition from landing to takeoff involves paying attention to bringing the flaps into the proper position, making certain the power reaches an acceptable level, perhaps repositioning the cowl flaps if so equipped, and repositioning the trim.

This involves a lot of hand-eye movement inside the cockpit and its easy to become distracted and lose directional control.

Take flaps, for example. Some airplanes are equipped with slow-moving electric flaps that do not have their positions marked by any detents on the control handle. That forces the pilot to look across the cockpit to check switch position, then out the window to verify flap position.

One technique to help you get closer to the desired flap position is to know the approximate time it takes to retract the flaps from landing configuration to takeoff setting, then verbally count, one thousand one, one thousand two….

How often have you been distracted because of a radio call from ATC? This is another common distractions pilots face daily. There are numerous examples in the accident database of pilots in the landing roll being asked where they were going to park, and in answering the radio, the pilot failed to maintain directional control.

While these accident reports dont mention whether the pilot was using a headset, Im betting that most of these occurred when pilots had to reach down for a microphone. If you dont have a headset, you are really increasing your workload and distractions by having to reach for that microphone each time. Scrimp and save if you have to, because a quality headset with a push-to-talk switch is definitely a worthwhile purchase.

I wish that was the only consequence of dealing with untimely ATC radio calls, but unfortunately, if you ask 26 other pilots, they will admit to another fear common to pilots who fly retractable gear aircraft. They were distracted and forgot to extend the landing gear.

Rapid-fire ATC broadcasts can fluster the unprepared, and last-minute runway changes can have you scrambling for approach plates. In both cases, its easy to lose track of the checklist you were in the middle of or to set up for the new approach incorrectly.

If you are flying into a busy airport, try to choose a quiet time. Have a pencil and paper ready on your kneeboard. Have the aircraft trimmed up so you can leave your hands off the controls to write down the amended clearances. Consider taking a pilot friend along who can handle the radio duties and copy clearances. When all else gangs up on you, remember its aviate, navigate, communicate in that order.

Students and Passengers
The fifth most common cause of pilot distraction in the cockpit involves giving dual instruction or carrying passengers. Flight instructors who get distracted giving dual instruction to students can forget to perform vital checklist items such as lowering the landing gear.

Other examples in the NTSB database found pilots distracted with passenger care or in conversations and forgetting to switch fuel tanks. Many fuel exhaustion accidents involve airplanes that have fuel in the other wing, but the pilot had forgotten to switch tanks somewhere in the flight.

Though some airplanes have a fuel system that feeds fuel from both tanks simultaneously, dont assume youll always be flying such an airplane. If youre flying a model with a Left/Right selector, it usually becomes obvious when one wing begins getting heavier than the other. This is a clue that youd better attend to switching tanks, though this still escapes the attention of several pilots each year.

As a back-up measure, some pilots set a timer to remind them to switch every half hour or 45 minutes. Many pilots swear by the watch face rule. Simply put, if the minute hand on your watch is on the left side of the face, your fuel selector should be on the left side. This wont ensure you remember to switch, but it eliminates any doubt on where the selector ought to be.

Before you begin any flight with passengers, you should brief them on the sterile cockpit periods, seat belt usage, and emergency equipment. If theyre neophytes in small airplanes, let them know that lights will flash and noises will chime from time to time, and that they dont necessarily mean disaster. The last thing you need when flying an ILS to minimums in bumpy weather is a passenger wigging out over the marker beacons.

Distraction management boils down to some simple basics. If the distraction isnt vital to the aircrafts systems, operations or flight path, ignore it until a better time comes to deal with it. If the distraction needs attention at some time in the future, make a reminder note so you dont forget. If you are flying with another person, use them to search for charts and pencil and checklists.

If the problem needs your attention now, deal with it while maintaining an even scan on the aircrafts controls, other systems and its flight path. Always, always, always maintain aircraft control. Thats your first and foremost task. If you were distracted during a checklist, go back to the beginning.

Distraction management doesnt require a degree in rocket science. But for many pilots, it just seems that the learning blocks have not been put into place and the secrets to success remain precisely that – secrets.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Distractions At Work.”

-by Pat Veillette

Pat Veillette is an Aviation Safety researcher working in the training department of a large carrier.


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