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How To Avoid Cockpit Distractions

by John M. White |  | 2 comments

As with all things in life we need to avoid distractions when operating machinery of all kinds, whether a tractor on a farm, driving our automobile, riding a motorcycle or flying an airplane. But aviation is far less forgiving, and this is why it is important to know how to avoid cockpit distractions. All of us "old timers" remember the Golden Rule of Flying: "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate" - in that precise order. Anything else should be eliminated from the cockpit environment, including idle chatter about unimportant and insignificant issues. In the recent past we can recall 2 stories about the effect of cockpit distractions, one non-fatal and, unfortunately, one that was fatal. The first was the Northwest crew who overflew their destination but recovered and delivered their passengers safely. The second, fatal accident, was the loss of the Colgan Air DHC-8-400 turboprop in Buffalo, NY. The cockpit voice recorder shows that the crew were discussing non-pertinent matters which, in turn, created an environment which impeded their ability to recognize the impending disaster. The NTSB report shows that the crew failed to recognize the decreasing margin of airspeed between Indicated Air Speed (IAS), changing colors of the numbers on the IAS display, and the excessive nose pitch up attitude of the aircraft. Had they noticed any of these in a timely manner they would have had more than adequate time to make a correction. But they didn't, and people died. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate - Avoid Cockpit Distractions Studies have shown that cockpit conversations can lead to distractions, but so can a high level of radio communication, heads down work programming a Flight Management System (FMS), reviewing approach plates or searching for traffic can all lead to problems. A disregard for standard operating procedures is the central, core issue in all of these cases. While a lot of us claim we can easily multi-task, the truth is that research shows that most individuals can only perform 2 tasks concurrently, and only in certain circumstances. Research has also shown that our conscious system is slow, requires effort and basically performs 1 task at a time, and those in sequence as well. Multiple task demands can exceed conscious capacity even though, as we acquire skill, many processes become automatic. An experienced pilot can fly a familiar aircraft in a largely automatic fashion, but there are 4 situations that require conscious control. These are:
  1. When the task is novel;
  2. When the task is perceived to be critical, difficult or dangerous;
  3. When an automatic process needs to be overridden;
  4. And when choosing among competing activities.
Pilots are encourage to adopt a philosophy that uses Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) skills properly, creates a sterile cockpit environment during critical phases of flight and that encourages first officers to intervene when a situation demands input from the right seat. Again, remember the Golden Rule: Aviate, Navigate and Communicate," in that order and at all times. Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch! JetAviator7 Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect. — Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group ps: Don't forget to sign up for our newsletter "All Things Aviation" here!

Comments (2)

  • Dave Brough on June 24, 2019

    You forgot to mention perhaps the most famous distraction in the history of aviation: Chesley Sullenberger. Yacking on his cell during taxiing – in violation of the law – was one thing. If Skiles really did practice CRM skills properly and maintained a sterile cockpit during taxiing and the critical climb out phase, he would have told Sullenberger to STFU and let him fly the damn plane. He didn’t, and it cost them.
    Skiles had just 35 hours in the Bus and it was his first trip flight with Sully. Most importantly, he (Skiles) was doing the flying. A professional would have let him concentrate on the task at hand, particularly during the critical TO/climb out and in the busiest air space on earth. Not Sullenberger. His stupid “beautiful view of the Hudson…” diverted Skile’s attention and gaze from where he it was demanded – ‘forward and up’ – at exactly the worst possible time.
    Geese in formation are not small targets by any means. Had Skyle’s attention not been diverted at exactly the wrong time, he would have seen them in time to have made the slight control tweek needed to have avoided them. The question we don’t know is, “Was Sullenberger’s irresponsible behavior two isolated and close-spaced incidents or was it typical of how he conducted himself in the cockpit…?” How fortunate for him that except for the last minutes, cockpit conversations are erased. Chalk that one up to the pilot’s union.
    Whatever. Sully dangled the bait: Skiles took it. Gotcha. In the two seconds that Skyles was looking at the river, thence, by fate, came the birds that nearly cooked everyone’s goose.
    Simple as that.

  • admin on June 24, 2019


    I appreciate your comment; however, this is the first I heard of the issue of Sullenberger talking on his cell phone during taxi.

    You may recall that we had a Northwest DC-9 accident in Detroit where the crew got to talking and forgot to extend takeoff flaps, and of course, it ended in a needless disaster and loss of life.

    Flying jet aircraft where there are so rarely any problems can lull one into complacency, and as we all know complacency kills.

    JetAviator7 {John}

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