Since pilots are human, aviation hasn’t entirely escaped the same perils that afflict other human activities requiring diligence and expertise. Pilots can have off days for various reasons—fatigue, hangovers, emotional distress (or all three at once on a really bad Monday). Aviation culture encourages continuous monitoring and self-awareness, plus the strength of character to stay on the ground when not fit to fly. Inevitably, some take these obligations more seriously or practice them more successfully than others, but collectively we’ve done fairly well. (We’ve heard more than one pilot reassure nervous relatives by pointing out that “There’s less traffic up there, and most of it is sober.”)
Healthy, well-rested pilots can still suffer momentary lapses from causes whose transience makes them all the more insidious. High on that list is distraction. The hazard it poses during critical phases of flight has been a matter of intense concern to the FAA, and therefore the flight training industry, for decades. The ability to probe a student’s susceptibility cleverly but still safely is one of the hallmarks of a first-rate instructor. Unfortunately, there’s some truth in the saying that making anything foolproof just challenges nature to develop better fools. The modern world has not been helpful to efforts to eliminate distractions from the cockpit.
In July 2012, an Iowa crop-duster became one of the first pilots to succumb to a hazard that has wrought havoc across the different modes of surface transportation: He crashed into power lines during a spray run, apparently while talking on his cellphone. We’re aware of at least three more since then, two of which were fatal. (The lucky exception was a helicopter pilot in Texas who forgot to untie the main rotor blades after a phone call interrupted his preflight.)
In a particularly tragic accident in August 2013, the victim was an exceptionally adept student pilot flying his second solo. We’ll be reporting on this accident in detail in the next issue of CFI to CFI. Until then, it’s enough to say that the student was extraordinary in both his command of the aircraft and his attention to detail. His instructor told investigators that, knowing that the best rate-of-climb airspeed was 79 knots, “He was not happy with 80. He had to do 79.” Just 11 hours into training, his landings were consistently up to commercial standards. The instructor had found it more or less impossible to distract him during flight.
However, he was also a cardiac surgeon whose phone was the lifeline to his patients. The instructor later recalled that a phone call was the one thing he’d seen stop the student in his tracks during a preflight instruction. He’d arrived at the airport late the day of the accident after completing a difficult procedure, and his cellphone—found in the wreckage in a “thermally damaged” case—recorded a missed call at the moment his Piper Warrior went out of control. The instructor surmised that while twisting to retrieve the phone from the back seat, the student had accidentally kicked the left rudder, producing exactly the unexpected yaw that sent the airplane into the airport’s localizer antenna.
The NTSB was perhaps a little unkind in citing “the flight instructor's failure to provide adequate oversight of the student pilot by ensuring that the cockpit was free of distractions” as having contributed to the accident. The student was not just a mature adult but also an accomplished professional who had shown impressive mastery of the airplane just minutes before the crash. Still, this tragedy should remind all of us of the importance of instilling and reinforcing the “sterile cockpit” concept from the first lesson right through the CFI checkride.
Manufacturers’ checklists deal with items inside the aircraft, but instructors’ checklists need to take a broader view. “Cellphone off” should be the first item completed before engine start. If you or any of your instructors take calls in flight (we’ve known some who do), you need to step back and think about the message that sends your students. (Remember that “primacy” thing?) And before you send a student to fly solo in the pattern, consider requiring that student to hand over his or her phone. There’s some argument for allowing it on cross-countries in case of emergency, but in the traffic pattern nothing is as important as paying full attention to flying the aircraft.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.