CJ Perspectives: Virtual Distractions – aviation technology

CJ Perspectives: Virtual Distractions – aviation technology

PerspectivesMy laptop had been complaining for several months that it didn’t feel well. The appearance of a black screen with white letters was announcing a critical failure, and its withdrawal into safe mode was the reoccurring grievance. The electronic workhorse travels in my truck, the cockpit of the MD-80 and aboard the Duke, in a well-padded aluminum briefcase.

It receives no exceptional handling though: TSA scans and searches, hotel van loading and unloading, jarring, dropping and wide variations in temperature and humidity are its lot in life…well, they were its lot in life; its virtual existence has faded to an eternal black screen. A forensic investigation exposed the smoking gun: a combination of cold temperature start-ups (due to the minuscule clearance inside the hard drive) and a malicious virus had both conspired against the unsupported Windows XP operating system, destroying both the mind and body of the hard-working hard drive.

Measured and Mature

VirtualThe operating system, programs, pictures, music and documents were all lost. SAFE MODE was apparently not so safe after all. The apocalyptic event called for a measured and mature response. An unbridled OMG, and the whimpering appeal “There’s No Place Like Home”, which had worked in the past, both failed to help. Next, a Geek-Wizard from the Emerald City computer fix-it store was desperately sought for consultation. But neither the whimpering appeal nor the Wizard were able to return me, or the hard drive, to Kansas. The alternative response was to order a new laptop – but not from Kansas.

Come hither and behold for all to see! The Dell Inspiron 5000 running Windows 8, the newest Internet Explorer and the latest torturous iteration of MS Word, version one-gazillion. Never approach a steer from the front, a horse from the rear or, from any direction, a person over fifty with a new PC; especially one who neglected to back up their old data. Certainly you’ve had a comparable level of been-there-done-that. Not since getting my first smartphone have I struggled so desperately to not throw it into the air and blast it with a couple rounds from my 12 gauge. I obviously needed assistance…and counseling.

Using a kerosene heater to pre-heat the hard drive would produce too much carbon monoxide, and the TSA is hesitant to let one through security. After three hours with a computer guy during the set-up procedure of the new traveling companion, we agreed on several TSA, EPA and APA (American Psychiatric Association) approved backup systems. The strategy would be this: allow some warm-up time before boot-up, use a flash drive and an external hard drive, e-mail important documents to myself, and something new: rental space in “The Cloud” – a virtual safety deposit box for data, on an internet server. No kerosene, no wizard and no shotgun.

Head In The Clouds

It’s coincidental that the term Cloud is used to describe the internet server “place” in which our data is stored. The electronic revolution has created a generational paradigm shift in where our attention is directed. To say that the expression “Head In The Clouds” is accurate would be, well, not only accurate…but ironic. I’m sure you’ve seen people, many of them in fact, with their heads hung low, staring at an electronic device as they walk or drive. My carrier and others are hiring new crewmembers by the bushel, mostly young, and mostly flight attendants. You didn’t know they came by the bushel? I say young because of generational differences. A difference in work ethic, colloquial language, manners and attention span, as well as their incessant use of electronics. But it’s not just the younger generation that’s distracted by electronics. I guess because we are a bit slower in learning and using new tech, electronics distract us older folks just as much, or more, than the tech-savvy youth.

Electronic aviation technology distractions come from the usual suspects: social media, music, e-readers, e-mail, and texting. Often their use is at an inappropriate time – like when I’m trying to conduct a pre-departure crew briefing (a mandatory event in the part-121 world). And, occasionally, it’s during the gate-arrival phase, when we’re supposed to be disarming the inflatable slide function of the passenger exits. We’ve even “blown a slide” or two because they weren’t disarmed in time. I’m certain it’s happening at all the airlines and it’s not just the newbies making mistakes; it’s all crew members that are allowing themselves to be rushed or distracted, often by electronics.

Insidious and Overwhelming

Unfortunately, we pilots have the ability to stick our head in this new societal, and metaphoric, cloud just as much as anyone. The data available in the cockpit is more and more often coming from other than ground-based VHF, UHF and navigational signals – and the majority of it is not aviation related. Today’s electronic content comes from geosynchronous and orbiting satellites for weather and GPS, and the internet, radio and cell/Sat phones for everything else. While these new sources of information and entertainment are transformational in their usefulness, they can be habit-forming and an insidious and overwhelming distraction.

Have you been running a flight plan and been interrupted by a phone call, e-mail or text and had to start over? How about when you were driving to the airport, while pre-flighting the plane, or boarding your pax? Did you forget to duck while texting and hit your head on the tail? Did you forget to remove a protective cover or the chocks because you were distracted? Forget to close or lock the hangar door? Maybe one of your pax took a call, answered an e-mail or text while you were giving them a briefing on the doors, environmental system or how to communicate in flight. Our new information sources can be real attention grabbers – we must learn how, and when, it’s appropriate to ignore them.

Sterile Period

At the airlines it’s a well-defined point: when we begin required duties or run the first checklist. And if that fails, the sterile period is a line in the sand (the time at which all communication is strictly related to the operation of the jet – engine start to 10k). In GA, the beginning of the before-starting-engines checklist is a good point to turn off the phone, reader and tablets; you may even add “non-essential electronics off” to your on-screen checklist or write it on your old-fashioned paper version. At my carrier, it’s on the before-starting-engines checklist and is listed as PED’s…Set and Off – personal electronic devices set in airplane mode, or off.

Before flight isn’t the only time that our electronics may beckon to us. In the middle of the cruise segment, particularly if the flight is longer than a couple of hours, our minds will drift or we may indulge in non-flying activities. Call it boredom, day-dreaming or complacency. But, whatever it is, your head is in the clouds and you’re not paying attention. You may catch yourself, ATC may ask you if you copy center, or they might call you on guard. This is your heads-up, your black screen with white letters telling you that you’ve been placed in safe mode. Remember, safe mode isn’t so safe after all.

Do you have a plan if your GPS, GFMS or electronic kitbag becomes corrupted? They are not as sensitive as a hard working hard drive but they are electronic machines after all, and machines malfunction. The method in which we typically bring ourselves back to reality is to simulate the failure of a system, in this case, the loss of our virtual world of electronic data. The less often we perform this exercise, the more uncomfortable it becomes to lose the virtual world. Perhaps at some point during every flight we should tune out some, or all, of the virtual world, and tune in more of the real world – excepting required use of the autopilot during certain single-pilot operations. Plus, loss of some of this electronic magic may remind you of why you got into airplanes in the first place: it’s fun to be fully engaged and fly the things.

Angry Birds

The information available and presented to us through cockpit-installed hardware, our tablets, readers and cell/Sat phones, is very useful, but it’s creating an unforeseen level of distraction, and, sometimes, dependence. We deal with real things while at the controls of our vehicles, particularly our aerospace vehicles, real things that remain the most important. From your airplane’s perspective, it’s still a matter of up-down-left-right, and faster-and-slower; gravity is still there – and the ground is still there. Our electronics will supply data or entertainment to a final point when the first brings us into contact with the second. If your head is in the “Cloud”, this contact may occur at a time and manner other than your choosing. Don’t blow a slide, hit your head or let a house fall on you while reading an e-mail, texting or attempting the next level of Angry Birds.

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