Don’t Distract Me!

"Watch the runway!" Pete warned as I continued on the base leg. I looked up and realized we were well past the point where I should have begun the turn to final. From where my lax attention had put us, a steeply banked turn would be required to line up on the final leg. Conscious of the potential for a cross-controlled stall on the turn from base back to final, I made sure my turn was coordinated. I was embarrassed. I had been distracted during a critical phase of an approach. Not good!

Pete and I had been practicing LNAV/ VNAV approaches with the Garmin GNS 480 and broke the last one off to enter the pattern on the 45-degree angle for the downwind leg to Runway 3. While turning base I got distracted trying to enter the GPS approach for Runway 3 into the 480 to see whether, if we intercepted the inbound course inside the final approach fix, we'd be able to get the "advisory" glideslope on the 480 and the HSI.

Pete's heads up reminded me why it's always a good idea to invite a safety pilot along for the ride and to ignore distractions.

Distractions are likely a causal factor in a number of accidents. In recognition of their contributions to accidents the PTS (practical test standards) for the private certificate, under the heading "Use of Distractions During Practical Tests," states, "Numerous studies indicate that many accidents have occurred when the pilot has been distracted during critical phases of flight. To evaluate the applicant's ability to utilize proper control technique while dividing attention both inside and/or outside the cockpit, the examiner shall cause realistic distractions during the flight portion of the practical test to evaluate the applicant's ability to divide attention while maintaining safe flight."

As we continue to equip our airplanes with more capable-and complex-avionics systems, the potential for distraction and confusion increases exponentially. Trying to figure out why a GPS isn't giving you the information you want during an approach is a bad time to be trying to noodle an explanation. If you don't know your equipment well enough, don't use it.

We learn early on when practicing partial-panel operations how important it is to cover up the instruments that are providing inaccurate information. I'd argue that there should be a point during an approach when, if you don't feel your navigator is providing reliable information, or the information is ambiguous, you turn it off or cover it and revert to your basic VOR navigation skills-if your equipment will allow you.

It's not always easy, but I try very hard to maintain a "sterile" cockpit when descending into a traffic pattern or during the climb after departing. The "sterile cockpit" is actually written into the FARs for commercial operators (FAR 121.542 and FAR 135.100), and specifically prohibits crewmembers from performing any non-essential duties or activities while the airplane is in taxi, takeoff, landing and all other flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet except when in cruise flight.

It's a good idea to avoid discussions-or distractions-that are unrelated to the operation at hand until after the airplane's been set up for cruise.

Distractions seem to like company and frequently sprout a chain reaction that builds until it's overwhelming. A recent icing encounter by a Cardinal pilot is a case in point that could have ended much less happily than it did. Gene Wentzel and his girlfriend planned a short flight from N14 (the Flying W Airport, Lumberton, New Jersey) to RDG (Reading, Pennsylvania). He filed and received a simple IFR flight plan RBV (Robinsville), ARD (Yardley), PTW (Pottstown), direct RDG, maintain 2,000 feet, expect 4,000 five minutes after departure. Wentzel and his passenger took off into weather that was reported as 2,600-feet overcast, seven miles visibility with a light wind.

Wentzel began his climb to 2,000 feet headed for RBV and was then cleared on up to 4,000 feet and told to go direct to ARD. At about 3,800 feet, he started to see ice building on the airplane. By the time he leveled at 4,000 feet, he had about 1/8 inch on the airplane. He requested a lower altitude and was cleared back down to 3,000 feet. By the time he reached the lower altitude he had accumulated another 1/8 inch of ice but the accretion seemed to have stopped or at least slowed down. He was concerned because the windscreen was frozen over, but he turned on the defroster and within a minute or so had a baseball-sized clear spot on the windscreen. He said he was doing pretty well at that point but his passenger was getting nervous.

He turned on the autopilot-or thought he did-and asked the controller for lower. "No. You can't go any lower. Say intentions." At that point Wentzel requested a return back to the Flying W Airport at Lumberton and a clearance for lower so he could get to VFR weather and cancel his IFR flight plan.

The controller gave him a couple of turns for traffic and told him to stand by. Now, in addition to the ice, he was distracted by his nervous passenger and the need to get the approach charts for his return to the departure airport from his flight bag. He enlisted his passenger's help to retrieve the charts in an effort to distract her and as a potentially efficient use of cockpit resource management. But her confusion about which charts he needed only added another distraction as he tried to follow the controller's instructions.

With everything else that was going on, the controller amended the clearance and required him to intercept the 232-degree radial off the Robinsville VOR and to descend to 2,000 feet. As he was trying to find the approach charts and turning the OBS to set the 232 radial, he suddenly noticed the airspeed had fallen off to about 55 mph. Instinctively he assumed the airplane was in a climb and pitched the nose down. The abrupt maneuver scared his passenger who let out a small scream. Luckily, he had the presence of mind to quickly check his instruments and realize he wasn't in a climb but that the pitot tube had been blocked by ice. He switched on the pitot heat.

As he listened to the identifier for the VOR he became aware of the sound of rushing air. A quick glance at the attitude indicator revealed the airplane was in a descent with the right wing down about 35 to 40 degrees. Not good! He managed to pick up the low wing and return the airplane to straight and level. Now he was confused-and distracted-by the autopilot. Did it disconnect? Or had he forgotten to turn it on?

And then, to top it off, the controller picked that moment to call and ask why Wentzel wasn't turning to intercept the 232-degree radial. He checked that the autopilot was on and took up a heading to intercept the radial. To verify his position from the VOR, he glanced at his GPS but somehow the range on the GPS map had zoomed out to include the continental United States. Another distraction. He zoomed the range in so the GPS would at least be able to contribute to his situational awareness.

With everything else in shambles he had what he described as "a brain hiccup." He forgot whether the radial should be set on the top or the bottom of the OBS and whether he wanted a "To" or a "From" flag. Eventually, he got the OBS set and captured the radial. At that point, the controller cleared him for the VOR-A approach and told him to maintain 2,000 feet until reaching PONDE, the final approach fix, even though the published approach allows a descent to 1,500 feet inbound from Robinsville (RBV) on the 232-degree radial. As part of the approach clearance the controller added to his workload by giving Wentzel a modified procedure for the missed approach. He wrote down the clearance and read it back. Then he had to unload the flight plan from the GPS and reprogram it with the approach to the Flying W Airport.

Level at 2,000 feet the airplane was no longer picking up any ice and the ice blocking the pitot tube and on the windscreen had melted, but the airplane was still in solid instrument conditions. Wentzel crossed the final approach fix and began his descent to the MDA (minimum descent altitude). At 1,800 feet he broke out of the overcast and the approach put him right on the 45-degree angle for the downwind to Runway 1.

What could he have done to reduce the number of distractions that plagued him on this short flight? In analyzing the flight after he was safely on the ground, Wentzel admitted he should have realized the freezing level was right at his assigned altitude and he should have never launched. He also said he should make turning on the pitot heat part of his before-takeoff checklist on an IFR flight. He's also resolved to have all the charts for his destination, alternate and departure airports in case it becomes necessary to abort the flight and return to the departure point, easily accessible.

But perhaps the action that would have been most helpful would have been to be more assertive with air traffic control. According to Wentzel, "I should have said, 'No. I need an immediate descent out of IMC. I'll accept any heading,' or I should have admitted that I was overwhelmed and needed a vector."

Wentzel agreed to let me chronicle his experience because as he said, "I really found myself exposed and I hope everyone can learn something from my mistakes, idiocy and short-sightedness." All things considered, he did an admirable job of coping with the distractions, any of which could have meant a less successful flight.

Distractions are insidious and can gang up on any of us. Whenever you begin to feel you're not paying the level of attention you should be or you're overwhelmed by the situation, take a moment to remember the importance of removing, ignoring or eliminating distractions.


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