editor’s briefing: Distracting Distractions

editor’s briefing: Distracting Distractions

Last fall, the unthinkable happened. It was unthinkable because I didn’t think it would happen to me, and I wasn’t ready for it when it did. After 25 years of flying and thousands of hours, I have had my share of “uh-oh” moments in the cockpit. But this is one I didn’t see coming.

On this day, I was flying a solo hop from my home airport Johnson County Executive (OJC) to Manhattan, Kansas. The weather was perfect – sunny skies, light winds and no adverse weather forecasted. Although I could have flown VFR, I elected to go IFR, then pre-flighted as usual and fired up the plane. Everything checked out normal on the taxi, and I was quickly cleared for takeoff on Runway 18.

The aircraft accelerated smoothly, all the gauges were in the green, and upon reaching Vr, I broke ground and began my climb from the runway. At about 100 feet, all hell broke loose inside the aircraft. Literally. With a loud pop, the rear baggage door flew open, sending a deafening roar of air through the cabin. Papers and loose equipment swirled. The air pressure vibration pressed in on my inner ear in concert with my briefcase that was rhythmically slamming against the baggage compartment floor.

After my initial reaction of disbelief and shock, I sternly instructed myself to fly the plane, and nothing more. Airspeed was fine, attitude was stable, gear and approach flaps were still down…I had a perfectly functioning airplane, albeit a very noisy one. I called tower and told them I needed to come back around to land, explaining what had happened. After I was immediately cleared to land, I focused on the landing checklist, flew the pattern and made an uneventful landing. Once on the ramp, I assessed what had happened. Although I thought I had securely closed the door, one stubborn pin did not engage. Once airborne, the pressure popped the door open. There was no damage to the aircraft since my airspeed was relatively low. What started as an extreme adrenaline rush ended up being no big deal. The only casualties were cowl plugs and some errant papers that exited the aircraft and were decorating someone’s yard. I secured the door – for real this time – was re-issued my clearance and made the flight without further incident.

We’ve all read NTSB reports where the first link in the accident chain was an unexpected event that distracted the pilot. While it is hard to imagine that a minor or unanticipated distraction could kill us, that is exactly what has happened time and time again. So much so, it is among the NTSB’s top priorities for general aviation safety improvements.

A study by the Flight Safety Foundation found that distractions, even small ones, can have a profound effect on pilot performance. In examining the effect of distractions in approach and landing accidents, 72 percent of pilots omitted an action or took an inappropriate one. In more than half, the distraction caused them to have insufficient or loss of lateral or vertical situational awareness. In 45 percent, the pilots had a slow or delayed reaction.

We all know the mantra: aviate, navigate, communicate, manage. We tell ourselves that we know what to do when confronted with such an occurrence. But I contend that three gremlins can work to undo our best intentions: fixation, disbelief and the notion that we can effectively multitask.

Fixation, as you know, is the tendency to focus our cognitive capacity on one task, such dealing with an abnormal situation, and neglect other critical tasks. We’ve seen that occur time and time again where a pilot or crew are so focused on solving the problem, they lose sight of the big picture. In some cases, they fly a perfectly good aircraft into the ground. Disbelief (which I experienced momentarily) is the condition where we simply don’t accept the situation and fail the respond. Because the circumstances were the opposite of what we expect, we involuntarily respond, “This can’t be happening.” Physiologically, the startle reflex, which originates in the brain’s amygdala, impairs our cognitive abilities and slows our response.

Lastly, your mom’s superpowers notwithstanding, we humans are poor multitaskers. As pilots, we are good at keeping a number of balls in the air. But when something goes awry, tension rises and our workload increases, our ability to do every task with 100 percent accuracy declines dramatically. This is particularly an important point for those of us who fly single pilot.

As an instructor once told me, “When the (bleep) hits the fan, just keep the wing happy.” Good advice, especially when an unnerving event occurs at an inconvenient time during a flight. Most if not all stall accidents are the result of not paying attention to airspeed and angle of attack. Training in managing unusual events at critical points during a flight allows pilots to develop cognitive strategies for dealing with such occurrences.

In the book of “things we’d rather not experience again,” I’ve checked one potentially dangerous distraction off the list, and glad that I’m here to write about it. Fly safe!

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