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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Completing the preflight before your passengers show up. In the
absence of friendly banter, you can focus your full attention on the
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
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
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
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.