Recently we have learned from studies by the NTSB and NASA that distractions in cockpits can be fatal, and certainly represent a considerable risk that has not been properly acknowledged.
The NTSB’s senior human performance investigator Dr William Bramble finds that all the recent fatal airline accidents caused by pilot disorientation were preceded by crew distraction or fixation on an issue other than flying. This is most common when the distraction occurs just before or during a turn at night or in instrument meteorological conditions.
NASA is just beginning a programme to see if there is a better way of training pilots to recover from the upsets that can result from distraction-caused loss of control. But that is a strategy to cope with the results of a problem, not an attempt to eliminate the problem in the first place. In fact the previous blog addresses an aspect of this issue.
Now a NASA Ames study finds that cockpit operations are far more complex than pilots, airlines and the military acknowledge in their training and procedures. It’s not just the “linear procedures” laid out in crew manuals and checklists that make up crew workload. That’s an ideal world scarcely related to the real one. Distractions cause flapless take-offs as well as loss of control, NASA’s study demonstrates, and they are more frequent than we thought, because crews sometimes get away with them.
Routine flights, from arriving at the aircraft to shutting down the engines, are packed with potential distractions as a part of doing business. The golden rule of flightcrew priorities is “aviate, navigate, communicate”, but pilots are rarely left alone to do things in that order. Distractions, maybe interrupting checklists, take the form of air traffic control communications, calls from the cabin crew in the essential course of their duties, weather anomalies. The list is endless.
Talking of cabin crew, before the cockpit security door and associated procedures were adopted, flight attendants who had to deliver anything, from a message to a coffee or a meal, could enter discreetly, wait until the pilots were obviously between tasks, then deliver. The interphone does not give cabin crew the opportunity to judge when the time is right, and when the flightcrew are aware of an attempt to communicate it is a distraction if they are busy. That leads to a reluctance of the cabin crew to communicate, and sometimes that can be a risk in its own right.
The “sterile cockpit” concept adopted during descent to approach is about the only acknowledgement of the need to limit distractions. The rest of the time pilots have to cope with whatever comes their way. NASA says they have to recognise distractions for what they are: potential dangers. And to recognise when the distractions are taking over from the aviating.