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Battling the Attraction of Distraction

Source: www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing, By Susan Parson

A while back — in the January/February 2014 issue of the FAA Safety Briefing magazine, to be precise — I offered a confessional piece called “The Lost Art of Paying Attention.” I wrote about how painfully easy it is to succumb to the subtle tyranny of technology. Our glorious glowing gadgets tempt us to shirk not only our see-and-avoid responsibilities, but also a vast swath of the flight management work. They lull us away from the discipline of critical thinking and true situational awareness, a term that implies far more than a position check on the moving map.

And, as Sabrina Woods wrote in “Surprise!” (FAA Safety Briefing – March/April 2016), the cockpit is becoming quite a busy place as more and more technological upgrades become available. Dazzling electronic and LCD flight deck arrays are replacing traditional analog gauges. Electronic flight bags (EFB) can tell you almost everything you want to know with the swipe of a finger. ADS-B In and Out monitor traffic. Once you’ve hit that desired altitude and cruise speed, an autopilot can take over, leaving you to sit back, relax, and observe the progress of your flight. Everything is perfect ... until suddenly nothing makes sense.

No pilot is immune from the potentially fatal attraction of distraction, especially when it comes to dealing with technology. New technologies are the focus of this issue, but you can also be distracted by the vagaries of older gadgets, or by the quirks of a “FrankenPlane” aircraft with new avionics stitched in beside the original equipment. So we thought that some of the cautions offered before bear repeating.

Manage the Machines

Technology and automation applied to an actively-managed flight can magnify its safety and efficiency, but when applied to a non-managed flight, they can very efficiently get you into very big trouble. Regardless of how good they are, today’s avionics and handheld devices do not have sufficient intelligence to do more than exactly what we command them to do. If we issue the wrong commands because of inattention or incomplete understanding of the technology, the flight will potentially go off track in every possible way.

Know Your Equipment

You need to know the equipment cold. When I teach the use of GPS moving map navigators, I stress the importance of knowing how to precisely navigate both the mechanical structure (aka the “knobology”) and the library structure — that is, how to efficiently find and display the information you need for any given phase of flight. You need to know its normal and abnormal operations, so you can avoid those pesky and potentially dangerous “what’s it doing” situations. You need to know its limitations — what the technology can do for you and, equally important, what functions are simply beyond its capability.

Set the Tripwires

As Kenny Rogers sang in “The Gambler,” you need to “know when to hold `em, and know when to fold `em.” If you find yourself baffled, confused, or in any way uncertain about what the technology is doing, it’s time to turn it off and reorient yourself. That certainly applies to the autopilot, but it also includes panel-mount, hand-held, or tablet-based navigators if you don’t understand where they are taking you — or if you have any doubts as to the safety of the suggested course. Never forget that the magenta line can guide you direct to anywhere ... including direct through regulatory obstacles (e.g., restricted/prohibited/controlled airspace), manmade obstacles, or natural ones such as terrain.

Stay Focused

If you are lucky enough to have a good autopilot, it’s great to have “George” tend to the basic flying chores while you — at least in theory — focus on more important things like positional awareness and, more broadly, overall situational awareness (e.g., status of weather, fuel, engine indications). The challenge, of course, is to actually direct that freed-up mental and physical capacity to those more important positional and situation awareness considerations. That means overcoming the very human tendency to lapse into “fat, dumb, and happy” complacency that could cause you to miss something like an abnormal indication on an engine gauge. Find ways to keep yourself continuously in the loop. For example:

  • Use callouts to maintain positional awareness (e.g., “crossing WITTO intersection, next waypoint is MITER intersection”).
  • Announce changes to heading, altitude, and frequency.
  • Record those changes in an abbreviated navigation log. The act of speaking and writing bolsters your awareness.
  • Announce any change to navigation source (e.g., “switching from GPS to VLOC”) and autopilot modes. I encourage pilots to read each item on the autopilot status display aloud everytime there is a change stating which modes are armed and which modes are engaged.

Today’s technology provides the foundation for an unprecedented level of situational awareness. We just have to use it for that purpose, and pay attention in order to repel the all-too-human attraction to technological distractions that could detract from flight safety.

Learn More

“The Lost Art of Paying Attention,” FAA Safety Briefing, Jan/Feb 2014, p. 8 www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/2014/media/JanFeb2014.pdf

“Surprise,” FAA Safety Briefing, Mar/Apr 2016, p. 18 www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/2016/media/MarApr2016.pdf

Susan Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.