Managing Distractions in Aviation

    Author: Glenn Daley, ERHC Safety Chair

         What does a trip sheet, a smart phone, a tablet and a Blue Tooth paired headset have in common? Writing, texting or talking has never flown a helicopter. This concept was made real to me years ago when I was backing out of 6N5 on a 95-degree day near max gross weight. As I began the transition to forward flight and needed the pilot not flying to be monitoring the departure and making callouts, the other pilot felt it more important to make timely entries on the trip sheet. After we were in cruise happily on our way to HTO I asked the SIC if this was not a better time to attend to duties not directly involved with the safe operation of the helicopter? Several months later I was taxiing onto a very busy and crowded FBO ramp. As I was passing between two jets the SIC reached for the trip sheet to make a notation. I came to an abrupt stop and he said “what’s wrong”. I told him that nothing he was writing could be more important than helping to prevent contact with another aircraft or a fuel truck. These incidents are examples of “low tech” distractions that can easily be corrected with SOP’s and training.

         In our present-day cockpit’s, we have even more insidious distractions in the form of personal electronic devices such as smart phones and tablets. These are culturally based distractions that can even be described as addictions. Just take a moment and consider how much of our day is taken up by “screen time” How many people we pass on the street in a “heads down” posture. For some, these distractions prompt a Pavlovian response to the electronic stimuli that becomes reflexive. If a busy street is no place for “heads down” a crowded VFR corridor or route is certainly not either. We live in a world where electronic distractions are growing exponentially and are all around us throughout the day. For many of us electronic flight bags and flight planning applications such as Foreflight have become common place and indispensable. As with most good things, too much of a good thing can lead to problems. The time to familiarize yourself and to “play” with these devices is on the ground or in cruise when not the pilot flying. The simple fact is that non-aviation habits and norms have crept into our cockpits and it incumbent upon us to recognize and mitigate these effects before an accident rather than after. In research conducted by NASA on flight crew distractions. They have determined that pilots are vulnerable to errors and omissions when they attempt to multi-task. Cognitive research indicates that pilots are able to execute two tasks simultaneously only in limite circumstances, even if they can easily perform each task separately. Composing a text is an example of a task that requires active conscious processing and requires more than reflexive action or muscle memory. Flying a helicopter or driving a car is a largely automatic act. Our brains can handle either act singularly. Mixing an automatic act such as flying or driving with an active act such as texting will pose a challenge to the individual and in many cases results in a degradation of performance.

         The National Safety Council reports that cellphone use while driving leads to 1.6 millionaccidents each year. Texting while driving is estimated to cause 390,000 injuries each year. Currently 25% of automobile accidents are caused by texting while driving. Some studiessuggest that texting while driving can be three to four more times as hazardous than driving under the influence of alcohol. A well-functioning SMS (Safety Management System) allows us to be proactive and even predictive with regard to threats and hazards. If we do not translate this data into aviation operations we do so at our own peril.

         Distractions to maintenance and ground operations can be just as hazardous as operational distractions. Do you really want an aircraft technician performing a critical maintenance procedure to be distracted by a phone call or text? Do you want a line service person to be checking a tweet while fueling your aircraft? A few years ago, I was wing walking a helicopter from the hangar to the ramp in preparation for the days flying. To save time I called the FBO to order fuel while I was supposed to be paying attention to the blade tips clearance with other aircraft and the hangar door. After barely clearing the hangar door I realized that my full attention was not where it belonged, with the task at hand. The fuel call could have certainly waited for the two minutes it took to safely tow the helicopter to the ramp. Some operations have gone so far as to make the hangar deck a “no phone” zone unless the phone is required to photograph a part or communicate regarding a maintenance action.

         Two basic principles of an effective SMS are the identification of hazards and mitigating them once identified. I think we can all agree that there is a time and place for writing, talking and texting. Our challenge is to identify the phases of flight and ground operations where distractions must be mitigated. We must develop common sense policies and strategies to combat distraction. Some operators forbid the use of phones during any phase of flight. Others only allow their use during cruise, and in two pilot operations making sure someone is always “outside”.

         Hazards often cannot be eliminated but they sure can be mitigated. In addressing this problem I’m a realist. In our business timely communications with those we support and those that dispatch us are vital and cannot be dismissed. However, there is a great deal of room to apply some best practices. The next time you feel the urge to write, talk or text, ask yourself “is this the appropriate time and place for it”? If not just wait a few minutes until the distraction has a minimal impact on the safety of the flight or ground operation.

    Fly Smart, Fly Safe,