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. 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:
- When the task is novel;
- When the task is perceived to be critical, difficult or dangerous;
- When an automatic process needs to be overridden;
- And when choosing among competing activities.