Visual Distractions Still Affect Flight Safety

By Scott Spangler on October 6th, 2009

JetWhine_LA Basin When I learned to fly back in the mid 1970s, the airspace over the LA Basin was pretty crowded. Because of the smog that then reduced the visibility to some degree every day, most aviators were usually quite serious about seeing and avoiding each other. 

Then, one spring Saturday morning, I awoke to a rare sight, a clear, sharply focused view of the mountains that form the basin. It was, I thought, a perfect day to fly, and I quickly departed for Eagle Aviation at LGB. My instructor, Kim, didn’t share my enthusiasm. When I asked why he stressed that I keep my eyes peeled for traffic and to fly as defensively as I rode my motorcycle, he offered a grim smile and said, "You’ll find out."

JetWhine_See-and-avoid Ground and the control tower certainly seemed to be working a lot more airplanes. The flight to our practice area over the bay was akin to that of a spastic sidewinder rattlesnake as I saw and avoided multiple targets that wandered blindly through the unusually clear air.

All I really learned that day is that I didn’t like flying when you could see the mountains because too many other pilots were so distracted by the view that they spent too much time looking and didn’t put enough effort into seeing other airplanes, like the one I was flying.

Given the reports in the latest issue of Callback, the publication of NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, this is still a problem. What’s changed is that the visual distraction is not outside the airplane, it’s on the panel.

The situations described are pretty scary. In his own words, here is a segment of a GA pilot flying a simulated ILS…with an autopilot.

[I was] head down in cockpit trying to figure out why a button-pushing sequence was not working per the manual. At some point I realized I was taking too long over this. Turned westward and then noticed: 1. Almost over [an adjacent airport at] 1,800 feet. Sky divers above and to north, lowest maybe 2,300 feet. Closest laterally was perhaps ½ to 1 mile.

This is the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to me in flying. The airspace incursion was the least of it. Had my turn been different, I could have been among the divers with potentially catastrophic results for a diver. It’s not that priorities need reordering – we all agree on what they are. It’s actually making my behavior match my mental priorities. Not as easy – but a scare like this is awfully effective.

JetWhine_Debonair Panel And then there was the pilot who borrowed a friend’s Beech Debonair for a trip while his Cessna 210 was down for an engine overhaul. He’d checked out in the Beech several years before. The performance of the two airplanes was similar, but the panels were different. Taking the Beech was a last-minute decision, and the pilot didn’t take much time to review the manuals before the taking off on the IFR flight. Fortunately, it was a beautiful VFR day.

From soon after takeoff, however, I started having difficulty following the Victor airways, and frequently wandered off-course. I realized I wasn’t sure which nav radio matched the HSI and the VOR head, couldn’t program the GPS en route, and the autopilot didn’t help because it would veer off-course upon activation. In any event, I wandered off-course, overshot a VOR, and possibly busted my altitudes a couple of times…As I got closer to Airport 2 and realized that I just wasn’t comfortable enough with the instruments to go into Class B airspace, I tried to find an airport on my charts that would likely have a rental car.

Reading stuff like this not only makes me nervous about flying, like a clear day in the LA Basin, it makes me wonder what’s happened to initial and recurrent flight training. And when did pilots surrender control of the airplane to an autopilot. Yes, they are a great tool, just like the other technology in today’s panels, but it sure seems like the equipment is the master and the human is the servant rather than the reverse.

These inside events beg an important question: Do pilots today hand-fly anything other than take offs and landings, and does their gaze–their attention and situational awareness–stop at the instrument panel? — Scott Spangler

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4 Responses to “Visual Distractions Still Affect Flight Safety”

  1. Roy Evans II Says:

    With the advance of technology in regards to cockpit displays and traffic monitoring systems, I’ve noticed a more “heads-down” trend in both GA and Part 121 flying. Even with the automation off, pilots are focusing too much on their displays and not what is happening outside the window. A quick review of the visual cues available through the windscreen might remind a pilot that to know whether or not s/he is on glideslope and/or speed you can use more than just a HSI and an airspeed indicator.

  2. Bill Says:

    Automation Complacency can be a big problem. Little airplane or big. I tell my A-330 students that “if you’re working for the automation, instead of it working for you… turn it off, and make the airplane do what you want it to do. You can turn it back on 10 seconds later if you want”

  3. Visual distractions outside (and inside) the aircraft — Golf Hotel Whiskey Says:

    [...] Spangler has recently posted a very interesting entry (entitled Visual Distractions Still Affect Flight Safety) on Jetwhine that is well worth reading by every pilot – and not just by pilots who fly in areas [...]

  4. Paul Cox Says:

    Controllers notice all of the things you mention, and more; phraseology and basic radio communication procedures have gone from “mediocre” to “horrible” over the past decade or so.

    Let’s take one of the most basic things- a response to when a controller issues a traffic advisory to an a/c.

    I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that over half of the time, I do NOT get one of the two proper responses to a traffic call.

    (For those who’re searching their memory, the two responses are either “Traffic in sight” or “Negative contact”.)

    What’s wrong with the casual things like “I’m looking for him” or “got him on the fish finder” (from those TCAS-equipped a/c) or things like that?

    It’s not standard phraseology. There’s reasons we HAVE standard phraseology. And if a pilot can’t get the basic stuff down, well…

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