Distraction: It’s a word we hear a lot when reading about highway accidents and incidents involving heavy machinery, but distraction is also a major safety issue concerning pilots in the general aviation community.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 247 people were killed in 209 general aviation accidents from October 2016 through September 2017. Loss of control was the No. 1 cause of these deadly airplane crashes.
The FAA defines loss of control as an unintended departure of an aircraft from controlled flight. Once a pilot loses control of the aircraft, the problem quickly develops into a stall or spin with a high probability of ending in a crash.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates commercial and general aviation airplane crashes and makes recommendations that inform safety rules and regulations, distraction is a significant cause of aviation accidents stemming from loss of control.
Pilot distraction also causes pilots to forget to lower the landing gear, resulting in crash landings that prove to be costly in terms of both human lives and property damages.
Simple distractions, such as chatting on the radio or with passengers or looking for something that dropped on the floor can have life-threatening consequences for pilots and their passengers.
As aviation writer Bruce Landsberg writes on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) website:
“Humans, despite the phrase often included in résumés, are notoriously poor multitaskers. While we can keep a number of pies in the air simultaneously, when it is life-critical and must be done with 100-percent accuracy, at least one pie occasionally hits the floor with messy results. “
Distraction has also been ruled a factor in the cause of commercial airplane crashes, such as the crashes in recent years involving Colgan Air, Asiana, and Air France.
According to the FAA, “These accidents can be avoided. We remind you to maintain aircraft control at all times. This might mean a short delay in responding to ATC communications or passenger requests. In other words, Fly the Aircraft First!!”
The FAA urges pilots to “minimize distractions from every source” and maintain “sterile cockpit” procedures that eliminate distractions and prohibit airplane occupants from engaging in distracting activities. They ask aircraft operators to remind passengers to refrain from talking with the pilot or doing some other activity that can pull the pilot’s attention away from the controls.
“Establish the focused, no-nonsense mindset you need for critical phases of flight,” even if that means a delay in communicating with ground controllers, the FAA says.