Distractions & Interruptions

The most prudent of pilots will do all that is necessary to avoid getting distracted while preparing for, or engaging in, a flight. But circumstances that are either out of the ordinary, or out of one’s control, can arise surreptitiously that even the most vigilant of pilots will find a challenge to their concentration and natural flow of doing things.

Distractions and interruptions are threats. They can complicate the performance of a task, and they can induce performance errors by a pilot or flight crew. They can lead to the omission of actions, or the engagement of inappropriate actions. They can be subtle, and they can be brief. Yet they can be so disruptive so as to bring down an aircraft with tragic results.

Interruptions and distractions usually result from communication issues, head-down activities in the cockpit, and abnormal conditions or unanticipated situations. They break established cockpit protocols, including such activities as the application of standard operating procedures (SOPs), the performance of normal checklists, communications with air traffic control (ATC), the monitoring of systems and tasks, and any problem solving that might otherwise be taking place.

Diversions of attention compress the time that distracted pilots or crew require to get their usual tasks done. They can impose a sense of being rushed, thereby forcing a stacking up of tasks that may result in something or another being left off the cockpit to- do list. Human limitations are such that, when faced with concurrent task demands, something will often fall by the wayside.

The moments of inattention that are the result of disruptions can create crises in the cockpit. A flight path may be improperly monitored resulting in controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). An ATC instruction may be missed that leads to a runway incursion. An action may be omitted from a checklist that results in an abnormal condition that is not detected and corrected.

Aviation accident investigations are full of examples of cockpit oversights that were the consequence of distractions or interruptions. Such examples include: improper settings of flaps, failures to raise or drop landing gears, incorrect takeoff configurations, tardy responses to ATC instructions, inadequate management of fuel levels, failures to reset altimeters, descents below minimum descent altitudes (MDAs), altitude deviations, stalls while in a holding pattern, etc.

Sterile cockpit rules exist that prohibit airline pilots from engaging in any type of behaviour that may disrupt their attention during critical phases of flight; specifically, taxiing, takeoff, descent, and landing. Highlighting the need for such standards was a commercial flight in 2009 during which both the pilot and co-pilot were pre-occupied with activities that they were conducting on their personal laptop computers. Such was their respective levels of distraction that they overflew their destination by over 200 kilometers.

Pilots of small personal aircraft should apply the same standards as commercial operators. Have your routine for every phase of your flight, (including pre-flight and post-flight), and follow it every time you arrive at your airport. Recognize if your routine has been compromised or broken. If it has, don’t pick it up from where you “think” you left it off; start it from the beginning if necessary.

If you’re the sole pilot in a small aircraft with passengers, brief those passengers as soon as they board the aircraft (if not before). Inform them that there will be phases during the flight during which you’ll tell them not to distract you.

And if you’ve got a flight bag full of new and nifty electronic gadgets and tablets, establish a cockpit protocol for using them. Don’t get mesmerized by their functions and features. You still have to fly the airplane.

Strict adherence to cockpit operating standards will minimize disruptions and, thus, eliminate any negative effects of their outcomes.