I surfed over to the Aviation Safety Reporting System website to research a topic for this column. I typed in “cracked windshield” and waited. A thought popped into my head that reminded me to check out an airplane seller’s website. I scrolled through a plane or two from the inventory when I remembered this was not the reason I was on the internet.
I jumped back over to the ASRS tab. My search had yielded hundreds of “cracked windshield” hits, but they were all reports from pilots flying heavy iron. “Iron” reminded me I needed to fold the clothes in the dryer, which somehow led me to think about what kind of railing we were mulling to put on our refurbished back deck, which got me to thinking about how I always text my wife “on the deck” when I go flying and safely reach my destination. A loud, metallic clanging noise somewhere in my neighborhood reminded me of that one time at my old airline…
The captain and I were called back from our hotel to the airport, at 2 a.m., to fly a company Boeing 717 to another airport. This kind of thing came with the territory. Unlike the airline, the airport was not obliged to be staffed at 2 a.m. So, as there was no other vehicle or aircraft movement around that part of the airport, we decided to use the “powerback” method to push ourselves away from the gate.
The thrust reversers on Boeing 717 engines are the old “clamshell” type that close over the back of them and divert exhaust thrust air about 150° in the opposite direction. Great braking action on landing rollout. An expensive, noisy, gas-guzzling way to put a 717 into reverse from a standstill, too.
But short on sleep, eager to do an unusual procedure, and also urged by Dispatch to get a move on, we forgot one thing. The tow bar had been pre-positioned on the nose wheel. A loud clanging sound as we began our reverse roll reminded us.
Amazing how loud an abnormal sound is over the blast of those motors! Distraction led to an embarrassing situation…
Deep into that memory my wife walked in and asked me why I had such a silly grin on my face when I was supposed to be writing my column. I sheepishly returned to my computer and typed “tow bar” into the search window.
See what happened there? I got distracted.
And that is the common theme of 18% of the almost 700 NASA reports on general aviation tow bar incidents. All of those incidents occurred because the pilot — or the mechanic — got distracted.
Distraction, Distraction, Distraction
A Piper PA-46 pilot submitted a NASA report after he departed his home base one cold, winter, pre-sunrise morning with his tow bar attached.
“Since I had so thoroughly pre-flighted the airplane the previous evening, I believed I had pre-flighted this airplane more thoroughly when in the hangar than I had ever pre-flighted an airplane before,” wrote the pilot. He wrote that because he had spent the previous day cleaning, lubricating, sumping, updating and polishing the plane. The only thing he hadn’t done was fuel it.
He hadn’t fueled it that evening because the last time the pilot had filled the tanks of his hangar-warmed PA-46 Malibu, it was from a cold-soaked fuel truck. As the Jet A warmed in his tanks, it expanded and spilled out through the overflow ports onto the pristine hangar floor. To avoid that snafu again, the pilot waited until the morning of the flight to gas up.
He used the outside frigid temperatures as an excuse to zip through pulling the Malibu from the hangar with a tractor. Then he drove the tractor back into the hangar and shut the doors to preserve the interior heat. Meanwhile, the pre-dawn darkness and the shadow cast from an overhead light hid the tow bar from him.
He wrote, “When my co-pilot arrived with two pets, they immediately boarded the airplane because of the cold temperature, as did my employer, the airplane owner. I put some more pressure on myself then to get the airplane started to get some heat into the cabin.”
Two pets and a cold airplane owner. Distraction, distraction, distraction.
He also had to refile his flight plan because of destination weather changes. More distraction, which created additional pressure to quicken the pace to meet the agreed upon departure time.
The previous day’s pre-flight fresh in his mind, the pilot did only a cursory walk-around. He then boarded, buttoned up, started up, and departed.
“The only indication I had of the problem was a slight thump, and the ‘gear warn’ light on the CAWS panel remained illuminated after I put the gear lever into the up position,” wrote the pilot.
He lowered the gear and got three green lights. That prompted him to return to the field and deal with the problem there rather than continue the flight. Tower cleared him to land. Upon doing so, Tower advised him of sparks under his airplane. The pilot taxied clear and stopped. He shut down and discovered the tow bar still attached to the airplane.
In his conclusion, the pilot admitted the outcome could have been much worse. He also determined to not let internal pressures distract him from doing a thorough pre-flight every time he has to move an aircraft.
An experienced Grumman AA5 pilot filed his NASA report after landing at his destination and was unable to locate the tow bar he always kept inside his airplane. He wrote that he’d gotten distracted by a conversation he was having with his passenger about aviation. The two climbed into the AA5, taxied to the runway, and departed.
The pilot didn’t sense anything unusual on takeoff in his fixed-gear aircraft. He flew about 1.4 hours to the destination.
“When ready to push aircraft into hangar,” he wrote, “was unable to locate tow bar. Realized the only remaining possibility was that I had taxied with it attached.”
He called back to his departure airport. Personnel there found the tow bar almost 2,000′ from the departure end of the runway, undamaged save for the bar’s retention spring and some paint scrapes. The airplane suffered no real damage to the fuselage, propeller, landing gear or paint.
A Cessna 182RG pilot was not so lucky. He had to stop enroute to his destination due to a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) and because he desperately needed to use the bathroom.
“I used the tow bar to park the plane,” he wrote. “I used the restroom and upon TFR cancellation, I started the engine and taxied for takeoff for the short, 20 nm flight.”
He noted that gear retraction was normal on climb-out, including seeing a good “gear up” light. However, when he selected gear down during his approach, he did not get a green “gear down” light. He contacted Tower and performed a low pass over the airfield. Tower confirmed he had two main gear down but the nose gear was still up. Several turns in the pattern while cycling the gear still produced no joy. The pilot left the pattern to attempt more extreme maneuvers to perhaps shake the nose gear down. Those attempts failed, too.
He decided to perform a partial gear-up landing. Tower had the crash vehicle onsite and cleared the pilot for the approach. He landed with flaps 40, 60 knots, and gear down. He managed to land the plane with minimal property or aircraft damage. Once the rescue crew raised the nose with a hydraulic lift, the pilot discovered the tow bar lodged in the nose wheel well.
“I helped dislodge the tow bar and the nose gear deployed,” wrote the pilot.
Like me, the pilots above all suffered varying degrees of tow bar problems due to distraction. The problem with distraction is it’s both endemic to modern life and inherent in human nature. We like to think it’s something we can overcome. Hence the mountain of books and articles on how to focus more, avoid distraction, and become better people.
The reality is distraction is the opposite side of a genetic coin called “mind-wandering.” Psychologist Alex Pang describes it aptly: “Mind-wandering is psychologically restorative and contributes to your creative energies.” We let our minds drift when we wash the dishes, fold clothes, mow the lawn, or walk the dog.
Mind-wandering lets our conscious mind take a break, while allowing our subconscious to keep working, testing combinations and trying out scenarios without us being aware of it.
We need both to do good work, to be creative and productive, and to have a good life. That’s why I’m not going to admonish people for being distracted.
Adhering to checklists can help address the problem, but not entirely. Most important is recognizing that distraction is part of our nature. After all, recognition of the problem is the first step.