The notes to the practical test standards for every level of pilot certificate require the examiner to “cause realistic distractions during the flight portion of the practical test.” Given the number of accidents instigated or compounded by failures to focus on the appropriate matter at the appropriate time, it makes sense to “evaluate the pilot’s ability and situational awareness to utilize proper control technique while dividing attention both inside and outside the cockpit” before granting any additional privileges. That being the case, it also makes sense for instructors to get into the habit of distracting their students early and often—not just in the interest of helping them pass their checkrides, but also to help them survive whatever comes after.
Obviously, this guidance needs to be calibrated. During the first few lessons of primary training, just taxiing requires all the attention most people can muster. Even after routine tasks become more manageable, there are better and worse places to stage distractions. Asking “Is that a fox in the infield?” is probably better tried on a long, straight taxiway than while negotiating a tricky corner around a hangar—at least at first. The operative principle (as in everything else) is to make sure the student can’t put the aircraft into a situation the instructor can’t get it out of again.
Unfortunately, being human and being pilots, instructors aren’t immune to distraction. There’s an unavoidable tension between their competing responsibilities to keep students and aircraft safe and to actually teach something. Inevitably, one sometimes gets in the way of the other. When the educational process diverts too much attention from the routine tasks of aircraft management, all on board can count themselves lucky if the results are merely embarrassing.
We rarely have to wait long for fresh examples. These four were reported in a period spanning three months:
On a checkride in a Piper Seminole, the applicant decided to maximize the airplane’s performance during a simulated engine failure by leaving the gear up until the base leg of the traffic pattern. The gear horn, which had begun to honk when the throttle was pulled to idle, “sounded throughout the remainder of the flight.” After turning base, “he was distracted by calls from other traffic and … the examiner also reported concentrating her attention on the other traffic.” The result? The Seminole landed gear-up and slid 1,400 feet down the runway. The NTSB didn’t report the outcome of the checkride, but we’re not optimistic.
Gear-related confusion isn’t limited to low-time pilots in small airplanes. On the first day of a type-rating course in an IAI Westwind jet, the 20,000-hour instructor—who held no fewer than 26 type ratings of his own—decided that the student’s very first landing should be a touch and go. That student was a 3,600-hour ATP type rated in three other jets, but he “had not landed a high-performance or turbine-powered aircraft in several years.” The airplane lifted briefly, settled back to the runway, and struck the right wing tip before the left main gear folded up. “A steady tone with the frequency of the gear warning horn” was constant through the last 27 seconds of the cockpit voice recording, leading investigators to conclude that the student had moved the gear handle up before the airplane had regained enough speed to fly.
Of course, retractable gear isn’t the only system that has been overlooked after the office got busy. During the course of checkout training, the new owner of a P35 Bonanza did touch and goes at four local airports. He and his CFI decided to make one last trip around the pattern after returning to the airport, only to have the engine quit. After a forced landing in a farm field, they discovered that the fuel selector was still set to the left tank—while all remaining usable fuel was in the right. (A few years earlier, a similar lapse during night instrument practice in a Piper Arrow took both wings off the airplane when it came down in a forest. Miraculously, the fuselage missed all the trees.)
And while attending to required procedures is a good start, it also helps to make sure they’re conducted correctly. After directing his student to switch tanks in a straight-tail Bonanza, the instructor pulled the throttle back to idle on downwind. When it became clear they wouldn’t make the runway and he called for a go-around, the engine failed to respond. Sure enough, the student had turned the selector valve—to OFF. (Maybe changing tanks is better done at altitude?)
Like emergencies, practice distractions are preferable to real ones, and a big part of your instructors’ work is to make the former as realistic as possible without letting it become the latter—all the while remaining mindful of their own vulnerability to the very hazard against which they’re trying to inoculate their students.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.