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Weapons of Mass Distraction

By Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Flying can really tie you up if you're serious about staying current'it takes lots of time and effort. But literally getting tied up in the cockpit, like a steer out of the rodeo gate, was something the pilot of a Piper PA-28-161 probably least expected as he taxied at the airport in Eastman, Georgia, on December 3, 2002.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board report, this hapless soul had just landed and was taxiing between a parked airplane and a hangar when, applying left rudder to stop a turn, he inadvertently stepped on the headset cord, which jerked his head downward. He became so distracted trying to untangle cord and head that his Piper continued forward and collided with the hangar.

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, occur unpredictably both inside and outside the cockpit, and can ruin your whole day. It wasn't total disaster for the Piper pilot'at least he was on the ground and didn't suffer any injuries.

Not so fortunate, however, was a 2,000-hour VFR pilot who attempted to land a Cessna 172 at Denton, Texas, on July 8, 2002.

The pilot was on final approach when another aircraft taking off from the same runway distracted him. Nevertheless, he continued the approach, landed long, bounced twice, ran off the end of the 6,000-foot runway, and struck multiple localizer antennae. Though the pilot was only slightly hurt, his passenger died and the Cessna sustained major damage.

Most general aviation accidents are the result of more than one cause, so it's difficult to say how often and to what extent distractions play a role. But most of us are all too familiar with this insidious threat and the way it diverts our attention from flying.

Sometimes distractions begin well before the flight'for example, when conflict with the boss prompts us, at the airport, to ponder a job change instead of the airplane's overdue oil change. Other times, they interfere during key operations. ('Hmm. Did ATC say 'position and hold on 29' or 'hold short of 29'?')

The list of potential distractions is long: annoying preflight mechanical glitches, fiddling with instruments (or headset cords) while taxiing, an open door on takeoff, chatty passengers, fumbling with the sectional or Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) en route, programming the GPS and other nav aids, a wasp buzzing around the cockpit. Aircraft renters will recognize this one - worrying about 'money down the drain' as the engine idles on the ground'a dangerous incentive to hurry.

Yet, whether you're taxiing, landing, or passing through busy airspace, being able to respond instantly to hazards is critical. And that means staying focused. Just a few seconds of inattention can spell disaster when two converging aircraft, each traveling at 95 knots or faster, are on a midair collision course. In such cases, if you hope to see and avert, every second counts.

Keeping distractions to a minimum is even more critical in bad weather because, as the Federal Aviation Administration reminds us, cockpit distractions and workload increase when visibility is poor.

'OK,' you say. 'Distractions are a pain'so what? They're like expensive avgas and mothers-in-law: Unavoidable.'

On the contrary, 'distraction management' can become as much a part of your fly-safe routine as risk management if you consciously make it so. You won't ever eliminate all distractions, of course; they come with the territory. But pros say you can certainly preclude a large portion of them by:

  • Not flying when you're ill, stressed, or emotionally frazzled. 'Even a simple headache can be a distraction,' the Flight Safety Foundation recently noted.
  • Giving yourself extra time to perform important tasks. For example, arrive at the airport earlier so you can do a thorough preflight, get a weather briefing, and attend to minor hang-ups without feeling rushed.
  • Completing the preflight before your passengers show up. In the absence of friendly banter, you can focus your full attention on the airplane.
    Explaining to passengers'and enforcing'the 'sterile cockpit' rule when operating at or near airports.
  • Organizing the cockpit in advance'unfolding the sectional, labeling the appropriate page in the A/FD, making other pilot aids readily accessible, and completing as many flight calculations as possible before takeoff.
  • Simplifying. Do you really need all 50 pages of today's printout from Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS)?
  • First aviating (which includes ground operations), then navigating, then communicating. Don't sweat the small stuff'a window left open or a sectional that tumbles off your lap on takeoff.
  • Executing a go-around if, on final approach, your concentration is disrupted.
  • Diverting to another airport instead of attempting multiple IFR approaches. 'History tells us that multiple, unplanned instrument approaches can bring distractions and deteriorate a pilot's judgment,' writes Thomas Turner, a veteran flight instructor and author.
  • Always relying on checklists, which refocus your attention on the most important task at hand: flying the airplane.

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif.