IFR Fix: A distraction you can count on

May 31, 2013

How many times will you be distracted on your next instrument flight?

You can calculate a baseline number of distractions directly from your flight log. Just count the frequency changes you will make along the route, giving special attention to the cluster of frequencies you will use during the approach phase.

There will likely be distractions unrelated to communications, too, so go ahead and add a fudge factor for those. But there’s an important difference in how to manage the radio distractions: Switching frequencies promptly is something pilots are programmed from earliest training to do. And for good reason; it only takes one blocked or unacknowledged radio call to throw ATC’s intricate sequencing of aircraft into doubt. So pilots readily acknowledge (while suppressing a deep-seated belief that controllers possess special powers that enable them to assign frequencies precisely when pilots have their hands full of aircraft, turbulence, a tricky intercept, mechanical issues, or all of those).

What embeds “frequency management” in pilot consciousness as a necessary preemption of other cockpit chores is this passage from page 4-2-2 of the Aeronautical Information Manual: “When advised by ATC to change frequencies, acknowledge the instruction. If you select the new frequency without an acknowledgement, the controller’s workload is increased because there is no way of knowing whether you received the instruction or have had radio communications failure.”

Any high-workload scenario can turn management of radios into a major distraction; think of the student pilot who gets a scolding from an instructor for reaching for the microphone instead of the throttle when starting a go-around. (The erring student knows that communications is necessary and urgent; he or she is not yet comfortable setting priorities.)

The distraction potential of routine but urgent cockpit duties goes far beyond the cockpit of a primary trainer. After declaring an emergency, a Boeing 767-300 crew had let their autopilot get the better of them while they juggled an engine shutdown during an approach in instrument meteorological conditions. Later, reflecting on reasons for missing the autopilot’s failure to capture the glideslope, one listed factors including “entering IMC conditions at or near glide slope intercept, accomplishing checklist duties and frequency management averting my attention from the NAV display during glide slope.”

You know that the next frequency change—the distraction—is coming right up. Fly the aircraft; “manage” the radios.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.