Driven To Distraction
We have all heard stories of little things leading to big tragedies. Consider Challenger, a terrible tragedy caused by a defective O-ring. Then there was Eastern Airlines Flight 401, a Lockheed L-1011 that crashed in the Florida Everglades on December 29, 1972, because someone nudged the autopilot disconnect but didnt notice it while working on a failed nosegear indicator light. There are many-too many-other examples The point is, accidents and incidents can start from very simple events that simply snowball out of control. Heres the reason I began thinking about the chain of events.
A few months ago, I flew a 160-nm VFR trip in my Cherokee 140; not exactly an L-1011. The weather was typical summer haze, with 4 or 5 miles of visibility. I was on flight-following at 4500 feet over 500-foot terrain, when I looked over at my King KMA-24 audio panel and noticed that the transmit selector switch knob had fallen to the floor … strange, but no big deal. I reached down, picked it up and placed it back where it belonged. It fell off again (duh, the tiny set screw was loose) and this time I couldnt locate the knob. While trying to locate it, my heading wandered about 30 degrees. So I gave up looking for it and corrected the heading. Then I thought okay, Ill just turn the selector switch with my fingers if I need to. But because the shaft is small, this was not as easy as I thought it would be; the knob really adds a lot of leverage for turning the shaft. Then I thought, no big deal, Ill just stay on the #1 radio. It was then I remembered that the #1 radio had a senior moment at the last airport, but it was working fine now.
I guess you can say that I have gotten spoiled having two nav-comms. My normal procedure is to use #2 at the airport of departure, #1 for en route communications, and #2 again at the destination airport. This little problem just interrupted my normal procedure, but clearly presented no major problem for the flight. And, I had a back-up if needed: My handheld nav-comm radio was in the back seat, in my flight bag, and I could have reached it if #1 quit working. And, of course, I was VFR and the weather was good enough to just land at a non-towered airport. What bothered me, however, was how much this little problem distracted me from my duties as PIC. After letting my heading wander off, I had to consciously remind myself about my priorities: 1) aviate, 2) navigate, and 3) communicate.
Distractions can have other effects, too. For example, no one who has inadvertently landed a perfectly good airplane without extending its landing gear would say he or she was fully focused on the task at hand. When on an IFR flight, distractions can lead to altitude busts, missed heading changes and other relatively minor sins. Other distractions abound, but are less critical. How many of us have taken off without properly setting the elevator trim, the flaps or the directional gyro? Have you ever left a seat belt trapped in the cabin door and flapping in the breeze? Or forgotten to fully secure the door in the first place?
Controllers get distracted, too. Most recently, runway incursions made the national news when the NTSB released an animation of a near-collision on a runway at LAX involving a Boeing 737 that was cleared to take off and a Boeing 747 that was cleared to land, both on the same runway at the same time.
If I had been in IMC, I think this little problem would have been more mentally distracting, even though it was definitely not significant. When I was safely on the ground and parked, I searched and found the knob under the right seat. Unfortunately, the set-screw was lost and it took a couple of weeks to find a replacement (its not a standard size). So, I have added checking the security of this and other set screws to my annual inspection list.
I have trained for many emergencies over the years, but this little problem caught me off-guard, because I never thought about it happening. Fortunately, my training kicked in and I got back to the business of flying the airplane quickly, but this event made me realize how even little problems can create dangerous and unrecognized issues, all of which are due to distraction.
The point is that, as so many have said before, aviation can be very unforgiving of even the tiniest mistakes. When the sun is shining, the air is smooth and the engine purring, its a challenge to think too much about the little things that can go wrong. Most of the time, its a non-event to forget to scan the engine instruments for a few minutes or allow our heading to wander a couple of degrees.
Thinking about the little things can be dull, boring and seriously detract from the joy of flying our own plane. But think about them we must, since the penalty for omitting a checklist item can mean the difference between a dull, boring flight that our passengers remember for its smoothness and beauty instead of one in which the FAA, the NTSB and an insurance company become involved.
Successful personal aviation is all about avoiding distractions and paying attention to the task at hand, whether youre nailing your last ILS, putting the mains on the runway so smoothly no one knows youve landed or performing a barrel roll without losing a foot of altitude. Its all about the details.