As I sit at my desk this morning, at this very moment, there is a crew of powerful men crawling through my back yard, hoisting themselves up into trees, and cutting them down. They’ve got a machine that looks as if it was designed to crawl across a moonscape. It creeps on tracks, making all the racket in the world as it goes. A hydraulic arm at one end holds a basket, which in turn holds a man, who is holding a chainsaw that is impressive and quite sharp.
Lengths of tree branches and trunks are falling. The crew works methodically, collaboratively, in a manner that is safe and as predictable as possible – but appears to exist on a cloud of sawdust brought about by a frenzy of activity.
This destruction is taking place just a few feet from the window I’m watching it from. It’s a considerable distraction. The sort of situation that can slow down the production of the written word, but one that will not cause damage or injury to me or my office, unless something goes horribly wrong. And so, I keep half an eye on what’s going on outside my window, and half my brain working on the column my editor is expecting to see later today.
For a writer distraction is an annoyance. It can potentially slow down production, alter storylines, and generally lead to frustration. But nobody gets hurt. Nothing gets broken. The authorities don’t have to get involved.
Not so for pilots and mechanics who work on airplanes. Distraction can be a real problem. It can be a primary factor in the chain of events that leads to an incident, or an accident. On the extreme end of the distraction spectrum, fatalities can occur.
Let’s consider that for a moment.
There is nothing about a dropped pen, or a sick right seater, or an open door in flight that should cause anything more than the general annoyance and irritation a writer would experience while a crew drops trees no more than fifty feet from his (or her) desk. It’s not the distraction that carries the risk. It’s how we as pilots and mechanics and air traffic controllers handle that distraction. Do we have the ability to ignore the distraction so we can focus on the task at hand? Can we defuse the problem by unplugging from our original plan and institute a less stressful, lower workload, Plan B?
How we handle the distraction is far more important than the distraction itself. And that’s something worth thinking about and planning for. Because just as our financial health, our physical health, and the quality of our relationships are impacted primarily and most profoundly by our behavior, that is also the case with how we handle distractions in the air, in the shop, and in the tower.
Flight instructors have a responsibility to train pilot applicants to deal effectively with distraction. They use all sorts of tools. Some ridiculous, some pedestrian, but they all employ some system of distraction to evaluate how their students will react and correct for over-emphasis on the distraction that leads to a degradation of safety in flight. Or on the ground.
Imagine the embarrassment of driving your airplane into a ditch while taxiing, because you were programming the GPS while on the roll. It’s happened. More than once, I can tell you. Now escalate that same situation to move your aircraft off the taxiway and onto the active runway – while another aircraft is on the takeoff roll, or in the final critical stage of landing. That’s happened too. The outcome is not always a good one.
I once landed at the wrong airport because of poor planning and allowing myself to get distracted trying to teach a flight lesson to an unprepared student while in flight. I was young. It was a bad move. Fortunately, the only thing that was damaged was my pride.
These situations carry risk. Accidents can happen because a pilot who is willingly distracting himself or herself from the primary task at hand (operating the aircraft safely) has added a second or third, not at all time critical task task to their workload.
We all need to check ourselves. Focus on the task of making the main thing, the main thing, and keeping that task front and center in our world until it’s safe to add something extra to the mix.
This is as true for mechanics as it is for pilots. When Bob shows up and suggests, “Hey, let’s go to lunch. I’m buying.” There’s nothing wrong with taking him up on that offer. But if it means interrupting a multi-step process that has to be completed in a specific manner, we’re better off to defer for a bit. “Thanks, Bob. I’m starving. Give me twenty minutes to finish up here and I’ll be good to go.”
Something as simple as, “Hang on until I finish,” can prevent an airplane being returned to service with an unsecured oil line, or a loose wire end, or a pilot’s seat bracket that hasn’t been snugged into place. All those issues have happened. Rarely is the outcome something the pilot or the mechanic is pleased to see.
Similarly, in the tower things can get hectic. There are times when the controller may have to tell those of us on the move to quiet down and orbit outside the traffic area until the workload diminishes, or the distraction is resolved. Those moments may be less than ideal from the pilot’s perspective. Yet, that’s the responsible move and we have to respect the professionalism and reasonable work capacity of the folks on the ground as much as we do the folks in the air.
We’re all human. Our ability to concentrate, to make good decisions, to handle even simple tasks can be significantly degraded by distractions large and small. Oh, I could tell you stories. And I will. Right here in this space.
Keep reading. Keep flying. Keep your eyes outside and your distractions to a minimum. We’ll all be better off for it.