Proficient Pilot: Interruption of routine

Distractions can be detrimental

August 1, 2013

Barry SchiffPrior to taking off from the dirt “airstrip” serving the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, the manager there had requested that I treat the guests to a low pass over the lodge, which was nestled in a ravine near the departure end of the runway. Not one to pass up such an invitation, I enthusiastically agreed.

Immediately after liftoff, I pressured the nose down and accelerated the Beech Baron at only five or 10 feet agl. As we roared over the lodge, I rolled the twin into a 45-degree banked left turn and hauled back on the control wheel, not unlike a P–51 Mustang following a strafing run. I then reduced power and settled into a normal climb toward Johannesburg, the termination point of an exciting 12-day flying safari in 1981.

During the climb, I commented to Jack Chrysler, my friend in the right seat, that the airplane wasn’t climbing very well. We both saw them at the same time: The green gear-down lights were illuminated. “Doesn’t do so good with the gear hanging out,” I said to Jack while simultaneously raising the landing-gear switch.

The reason I had failed to raise the gear was simple. I had allowed a distraction to disrupt my routine, to interfere with the flow in which I ordinarily or habitually do things. Although only an embarrassment in this case, such distractions can lead to accidents. Seldom listed in accident reports as probable causes, distractions are considered by safety experts to be high on the list of causal factors. Interruptions can lead to errors of omission or inadvertent actions, the two most frequent causal factors in aircraft accidents.

One of the FAA’s first proactive acknowledgments of the hazards of distraction in general aviation seems to have been when it revised its stall-training recommendations during the 1980s. Since then, instructors have been encouraged to distract student pilots during slow-speed flight as a way to induce them into entering inadvertent stalls, a common cause of stall-spin accidents. Such training teaches more valuable lessons than conventional entries made by purposefully raising the nose until a stall occurs.

The FAA also implemented the “sterile-cockpit rule,” a regulation requiring airline pilots to avoid nonessential activities and conversation during critical phases of flight (including taxi) below 10,000 feet msl. One notable accident resulting from that type of distraction involved Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, a Douglas DC–9 that crashed during an instrument approach in dense fog to the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in 1974. The NTSB concluded that the accident was caused by the distraction of idle chatter in the cockpit.

Although such a rule does not exist for Part 91 operations, general aviation pilots can benefit from employing similar practices. We do this by briefing passengers on the importance of not distracting us unnecessarily while taxiing, and during departures and arrivals. It can be difficult to concentrate when others are talking or asking questions at critical moments. Light airplanes do not have cockpit voice recorders, so we do not know how many accidents might have been caused by passenger distraction. It is not unreasonable to assume, however, that there have been some—and possibly many.

There are other steps we can take to avoid becoming victims of distraction. Perhaps the most important is learning to recognize when your routine has been interrupted. Ask yourself at such times how a distraction might be affecting your flight. For example, if you are running a checklist and are interrupted in the process, do what airline pilots are trained to do: Reread the checklist from the very beginning.

An increasing cause of distraction is the proliferation of high-tech devices in GA cockpits. Although such avionics dramatically increase the availability of important flight data and improve situational awareness, such displays can distract those who spend too much time using them. I have observed pilots spending so much time observing and operating displays that they became distracted from their primary role of flying the airplane and looking out the window. It amazes me that there has not been a quantum increase in midair collisions.

This seems to be especially true of some who load their cockpits with portable devices and spaghetti-like connections that resemble the wiring coming out the back of an old personal computer.

Most of us acknowledge how dangerously distracting it is to use cellphones for texting while driving. Unfortunately, this hazardous practice has spread to the cockpit. The New Zealand aviation magazine, Vector, relates that there have been three fatal accidents in New Zealand in recent years “that involved the pilot using a cell phone (texting and talking) at or immediately prior to the time of the accident.” This almost certainly is happening here, too.