Dealing with distractions

August 1, 2006

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines uses his Beechcraft Bonanza for personal and business transportation.

The flight started quite literally with a bang. And for a nanosecond I knew it was coming. For some reason just before I started the left turn requested by air traffic control, I looked right before looking left. In the glance to the right, I noticed that the courtesy light at the bottom of the Beechcraft A36 Bonanza's cockpit door was on. The light, which for years didn't work, now does, thanks to a recent interior overhaul. It is designed to shine light on the wing walk to help with nighttime operations. A switch at the top of the door turns the light off when the door is closed.

For something less than that nanosecond I thought the switch had failed, leaving the light on, but then I saw daylight streaming in through the upper edge of the doorframe. The synapses snapped shut and I knew what was coming next. I had time to warn the passengers, "The door isn't latched," before the door popped open with a bang and a rush of noise and wind. Fortunately, I've had doors and windows pop open on other airplanes and I've spent many hours droning around in airplanes with entire doors removed during photo missions for the magazines. I knew the airplane would fly just fine, but I also knew it was a new experience for my wife in the right seat and my two daughters in the backseats. Trusting souls that they are, they were fine with my cryptic, shouted explanation that the airplane would fly just fine, the door wouldn't swing open, and we needed to land because it was not possible to latch the door during flight. I also knew it was my fault and that the root of the problem was distraction.

After a quick call to ATC, we swooped back to the airport and closed the door. Before calling clearance to reactivate my instrument flight plan, I stopped the airplane in the run-up area and went back through the complete departure checklist and did a mental assessment. Because of the new interior, the door now closes more snugly, but it also takes a bit more finesse in ensuring the top latch pulls the top of the door in properly. I've become accustomed to the different feel, but this was only the second flight my wife had made since a large infusion of cash had turned the green, brown, and gold 1972 interior into something more in keeping with the twenty-first century. When flying with most others, I insist on closing the door myself, which involves leaning over the person in the copilot seat. But she's done it so many times I had apparently relinquished that duty without even being aware of it. With no air loads on it, the top of the door can appear latched even when it isn't.

As we were taxiing out for the initial takeoff, the airplane seemed noisier than usual, but I dismissed it. We were running late. I had forgotten that the airplane hadn't been topped off after the previous trip, so we had spent time fueling. There were other distractions at the airport and I was already in a bad mood before we ever left the house. Somewhere in there, the "distractions" alarm bells should have gone off. Because it was a VFR day on a route I've flown many times, I apparently dismissed each of these small clues and didn't take the time to recognize the larger picture.

Surprisingly, every bit of this thinking crystallized in the seconds after the door popped open.

I had one of those Homer Simpson "Doh!" moments and quickly moved on to just flying the airplane. Although training hadn't served me so well in the preflight mode, training kicked in after the door popped. I distinctly remember thinking: Fly the airplane. As we entered the downwind, I had the conscious thought that this is where people forget to put the gear down or allow the airplane to get too slow turning base to final — when distracted by something else. I slowed myself down, triple-checked everything, and did an extra GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop, safety) check — three instead of the usual two — between downwind and final.

Back in the run-up area, I considered bagging the flight, and had the weather been questionable, I would have. Instead, I took a few minutes to get my thinking straight. The time pressure was purely of my own making. The folks waiting at the destination were not even leaving for the airport until we landed and called them. I soon realized that my comfort factor of flying a familiar airplane over a familiar route had allowed me to become complacent. Adopting a more methodical mindset, I took off again and completed the flight without incident.

Dastardly distractions

Distractions of one sort or another are often a precursor to accidents and, sometimes, bizarre situations. Everything from open doors to failed landing-gear position indicator lights have led to serious situations.

Earlier this year I put the words "aircraft accident" and a few similar terms into the Google online search engine and asked for a daily report of news articles that contained those words. Now, every day — sometimes multiple times a day — I get sent an e-mail that includes links to news stories about aircraft accidents. It can be depressing reading, but every once in a while there's a story that falls outside the usual accident fare. And I'm amazed at how often distractions of one type or another seem to play a role in the accidents. We do our best not to speculate about the cause of aircraft accidents without benefit of an NTSB report, but give me a little latitude here.

Distraction may have played a role in one strange accident earlier this summer. A man exited a Cessna 210 and, perhaps distracted, he was "clipped" by the propeller and died. Later that same day, according to press reports, the same airplane crashed shortly after takeoff, injuring the pilot who had been at the controls when the earlier accident occurred. Normally, when an aircraft is involved in a "propeller strike," the engine must be torn down and inspected for damage. Why that didn't happen is still under investigation.

Two New Hampshire men were killed in June as they were apparently attempting to descend out of instrument conditions to make a VFR landing at a small, private airport in Virginia. According to the news report, the controller offered to guide them to a lower altitude nearby, but the pilot said the aircraft was right over the airport and that perhaps he could see it if he could spiral down. That was apparently his last comment, just before the aircraft crashed. Apparently, the pilot became distracted by the thought that he must land at that airport. In an unusual twist, an acquaintance who was to pick them up had already decided that because of the poor weather they wouldn't be landing at the small airport; he was waiting at the nearby larger airport that has an instrument approach. If only the pilot had made the same decision.

Late last year, a young commercial pilot took five friends up for a joyride in a stolen Cessna Citation VII. Despite not having a type rating in that model of Citation (and it being a two-crewmember airplane), the pilot managed to make the flight from St. Augustine, Florida, to Gwinnett County-Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where he left the airplane. Authorities spent the next two days frantically looking for it, raising all sorts of concerns about some terrorist plot using a stolen business jet. According to published reports, the flight crew had left the Citation unlocked in Florida. You can bet that no amount of postflight distraction will keep crewmembers from locking the door from now on.

Another Google-delivered story detailed the death of a young pilot who was flying a man from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, where the passenger was reporting to federal prison for using a fake name to get a passport. The passenger survived with leg and hip injuries; his brother — a student pilot also on board — was seriously injured, as was a friend of the pilot's who was also on board. The accident occurred when the flight was attempting to land at the Mid-State Airport in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, during poor weather in the middle of the night.

The airlines had canceled flights into the area because of poor weather. You wonder what caused the pilot to think he could make it in — especially in the dark — when the airlines could not. We'll leave that for the NTSB to sort out. Don't be surprised if distraction on final of a low approach doesn't somehow play a part.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

Links to additional information about in-flight distractions may be found on AOPA Online.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.