How to Avoid Deadly Distractions

Modern instrumentation demands that pilots acquire new system programming and management skills.

The FAA decided a while back that "distractions" are a factor in accidents, especially IFR accidents, and added them to the Practical Test Standards guide. The FAA also recently added use of equipment to the PTS including glass cockpits, use of the standby instruments for a non-precision approach, GPS approaches and autopilot use that applicants for the IFR rating must demonstrate on the check ride.

This is all good because we have undergone a major change in the way some essential information for flying IFR is presented in the cockpit. To say that a change in IFR instrumentation can be a distraction is, to some, a stretch, and to others it is a reality. If a pilot is properly trained in the use of the instrumentation, whatever form it may take, then there should be no problem. But it is also safe to say that when a pilot is up to his ears in alligators on a dark and stormy night, the proper reaction to indications of a recently learned system might be elusive.

Do you know who Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper were? They were three of many rock-n-roll musicians who have been killed in general aviation airplanes. What does that have to do with this subject? In the CAB (which preceded the NTSB) report on the February 3, 1959 Bonanza crash that killed them, a contributing factor to the accident was found to be "the pilot's unfamiliarity with the instrument which determines the attitude of the aircraft." It was also noted that the directional gyro was caged which could have added to the pilot's confusion.

The pilot was 21 years old and had flunked an instrument rating flight test nine months before the accident. It was a dark, snowy and stormy night, with little visual reference, and control of the airplane was lost soon after takeoff. If you want to read all about it, go to Google and type in "The Day the Music Died."

The Sperry attitude gyro in the airplane did have a somewhat different presentation of attitude and, as I remember, it was implicated in some other accidents, one of which involved a pilot with a lot of experience. There was the suggestion that a pilot accustomed to the standard artificial horizon of the day might reverse sense the presentation on this one. That, to me, was a stretch, but it is what the CAB said in its accident report.

I think a key word in that CAB report was "confusion," in reference to the caged directional gyro. Confusion can be the ultimate distraction and at the time of that Bonanza crash we were starting through a change in instrumentation that might be compared with today's shift to electronic cockpit displays.

After World War II many general aviation airplanes were equipped with surplus military instrumentation. The gyro displays were big and bulky but were cheap. The attitude indicator had in it a miniature airplane symbol and a white line that moved around behind it to depict the horizon relative to the airplane symbol, and we called it an artificial horizon. There was no blue/brown background, just the line representing the horizon. The directional gyro wasn't a card like it is today where you could see the full 360 degrees. The old DG was a card on edge, like a magnetic compass, and you read the heading number from the edge of the card. As with a magnetic compass, the bigger numbers were to the right, or, the opposite of today's gyroscopic heading instrument. We also had turn and bank indicators with their vertical needle to show rate of turn and direction turn as opposed to turn coordinators.

The surplus military gyros began to disappear in the '50s and by the 1970s the style of IFR instruments was pretty well standardized, and they were arranged the same in all new airplanes, where before it had been a hodgepodge that was arranged differently in different airplanes.

There was some confusion among pilots during the transition period, too. The turn coordinator looked so much like an old artificial horizon that some pilots, in the heat of battle, thought it was giving a pitch indication. I knew one experienced pilot who mistakenly thought this when he was tussling with a thunderstorm in one of the first business jets. He lost control and then, in a show of superb airmanship, regained control and flew the structurally damaged airplane to a successful landing. I think his incident is why, many years later, my turn coordinator still has these words on the face: "no pitch information."

Then there is the fact that the motion inside an artificial horizon and a turn coordinator are opposite. Roll into a right turn and the little airplane in the TC rolls right where the little airplane in the attitude indicator remains stationary while the horizon line rolls left to indicate a right bank.

Finally, some attitude indicators have sky pointers instead of a roll index to show angle of bank. They are called sky pointers because they always point straight up, at the sky. If, for example, you are in a 30-degree right bank the sky pointer will be 30 degrees left of the center mark. Most of us are used to the so-called roll index indication that is 30 degrees to the right in a 30-degree banked right turn. The roll index is common in light airplanes, but the sky pointer is the norm in jets.

As instrumentation evolved we got horizontal situation indicators and flight directors and everything stayed the same for a long while. Then came electronic instrumentation, first to turbines and now to pistons. For piston pilots, the main adjustment will come because airspeed and altitude is displayed on vertical tapes as opposed to round dials.

That brings us back to the subject of distraction, or confusion, related to the presentation of information. We made the transition from the World War II instrumentation to more modern stuff back in the late '50s and early '60s with some, but not a lot of trouble even though there were substantial and potentially confusing changes. And I think we will make the transition to glass cockpits with even less trouble. We have never had attitude indication as good and clear as it is in the new primary flight displays. There is just nothing there to confuse. The tape presentations of airspeed and altitude might take some getting used to but that should be no hill for a stepper.

However, there is a kicker.

There are probably over 35,000 airplanes equipped with navigators, mostly Garmin 430/530 or Bendix/King KLN 94 GPS systems with a multifunction display. That is a high percentage of the fleet that is used for active IFR flying. The kicker is that a lot of the pilots flying the systems do not fully understand them. And because there is even more capability in the navigational part of the glass cockpits, there is more there to not fully understand. That can lead to confusion.

I would hasten to add that an examiner knocking your chart off your lap, or dropping a pencil, or feigning a Schlitz fit, to satisfy the distraction requirement in the PTS, is different from dealing with mental confusion about how to operate equipment.

Let's look at times confusion might occur and how to avoid it. This is as applicable to airplanes with 430/530, 94, or other navigators as it is to airplanes with glass cockpits.

The distraction or confusion can come because the pilot bumps up against something that he doesn't quite know how to do but that seems necessary.

The best place to start avoiding this comes on the ground. Thorough study of the system and regular study of the manuals and use of the computer simulations of the equipment is a good start. So is flying, with a safety pilot, and going through all the procedures.

The next step comes in the airplane, before flight, when using the equipment for real.

The best way to use a navigator is by loading a flight plan. The only way to navigate with a glass cockpit is through the flight plan function. If you don't do this, you miss a lot of capability. Some pilots resist entering an IFR flight plan by contending that the clearance from the controller might change. So what? If the clearance changes, change the flight plan in the navigator. That isn't rocket science and it has been my experience that things don't change that often.

Also, if you put the flight plan in before taxiing, and the clearance isn't the same as the flight plan, change it before takeoff.

A substantial number of IFR accidents happen soon after takeoff, when control of the airplane is lost. Those accidents may well come because of confusion at one of the more difficult times in an instrument flight. The sensations are unusual during the acceleration of takeoff and initial climb and while the best thing to do is concentrate only on climbing straight ahead for the first minute or so, that isn't always possible. The controller or procedure might dictate a turn shortly after takeoff. Even a frequency change can divert attention. Certainly were a pilot to try to work on a flight plan at this time, he would be looking for trouble.

Here we come to another important element in staying away from confusion. The autopilot. We are going to assume the pilot knows everything there is to know about the autopilot and just examine its use in connection with all the other equipment. This is doubly important with a glass cockpit and/or navigator because of the programming requirements when using the equipment properly.

The autopilot should be set, before takeoff, to take the controls soon after takeoff. If the autopilot is not configured properly, and it does something that isn't anticipated by the pilot, that might create the ultimate confusion. But if it is set properly, it can relieve a lot of the pressure from the beginning of the flight to the end of the flight. The autopilot is an integral part of the airplane and becomes even more important with a glass cockpit. Good training will emphasize this.

When should the autopilot be turned on? If the pilot is as sharp as he should be on autopilot use, it might be turned on as soon as the airplane is off the ground. I am a cheapskate and have just an S-Tec roll-only autopilot. It can be turned on immediately after takeoff, in the heading mode, with the bug set on runway heading, and, presto, the airplane is roll stabilized from the git-go. I would say to take off with it on, but taking off or landing with it on is prohibited in the limitations. All autopilots have certification limitations that set minimum altitudes for engagement for takeoff, and on approach. Those limits are in the pilot's operation handbook supplements section.

Pressure is an important contributor to confusion and distraction under IFR. A pilot who feels pressured is far more prone to succumb to confusion than is a pilot who feels like he is ahead of things and with the flow of events. Using the autopilot is all about relieving pressure on the pilot.

En route, the main distraction that leads to problems comes from turbulence, or, wet and bumpy clouds. A lot of pilots turn the autopilot off and hand-fly in such conditions, feeling like they can do a better job than the autopilot. Mistake. If there is a lot of up and down activity, the altitude hold function should be disabled, but in almost any turbulence condition the autopilot will do a better job of remembering which way is up than will the human pilot. A rate-based autopilot like the King KAP 140 or basic S-Tec gets quite sloppy in bumps, but they do remember which way is up.

As a flight comes closer to a conclusion, the chances of a pilot becoming distracted, or confused, increases as the distance to touchdown decreases. This is a time of great challenge.

The navigator's pictorial display of the approach is a superb aid here so long as the pilot puts the appropriate effort into programming and thinking and staying ahead of the airplane and events. When being vectored, you have the same view on your electronic map of what is going on as does the radar controller. When not in a radar environment, there's a picture of what you are doing on the screen and all you have to do is follow the procedure and mind the correct altitudes.

But there is still that critical requirement to program the navigator for the approach. This is simple and straightforward on most but even a pilot who is well up on the equipment has to concentrate on doing it properly. Need it be said that having the autopilot flying makes this easier to do.

As an approach is flown, the pressure on the pilot does increase. If nothing else, the realization that you are flying blind near the ground adds to the event. However, the pilot who is ahead of the airplane is not likely to become confused or distracted. And maybe the heightened awareness that comes as the approach proceeds is a good thing.

Here we need to look at two scenarios. In some approach accidents the airplane is flown into the ground somewhere along the approach course but four or five miles from the airport. In others, the airplane crashes near the airport.

In the first case, well away from the touchdown zone, the only plausible explanation is confusion. The pilot was quite obviously not where he thought he was, or at least he was flying at an unsafe altitude for his location. With navigators we have distance to the end of the runway and with that, and altitude, the only explanation for a premature arrival is confusion about the correct altitude to fly, or, an error in the altitude indication. The latter is a rare failure.

The crash in close proximity to the airport can only be charged to the pilot trying too hard to make the impossible work. Especially with distance to the end of the runway shown on the navigator, it will always be tempting to ease down a little lower when, say, a half mile or so from the end of the runway. Trouble is, in low conditions the clag often goes all the way to the ground and a continued descent would yield only the briefest view of a tree. If there is any place where the increased information from a navigator might embolden the devil on our shoulder, this is it.

There are not a lot of actual IMC missed approaches flown but this is where a lot of accidents occur. From the moment the missed approach is begun to the point where the airplane is up and configured for what comes next is a time that is fraught with opportunities for confusion.

There is an easy missed approach pressure reliever that you can apply first. In the time before the original approach is begun, check around for an alternate airport to use if the approach is missed. If you know what it will be and if you know what the reported weather is there, then there will be two fewer questions in your mind as you fly into the missed approach.

There are two dominant types of missed approach accidents. One is the loss of control. The other is flight into the ground as or after the airport is passed.

Using the autopilot is always a good deal on a missed approach. This addresses the loss of control question. Use of my autopilot on a missed approach is simple because it is a roll-only autopilot. It stays turned on into and through the missed approach and is used to fly the appropriate headings. If you are going to fly actual IFR, practice using the autopilot through a few missed approaches while flying under a hood. Know how it works.

Flying into the ground under control during a missed approach might be related to confusion, or at least a mental block. Most of us don't expect to miss the approach, but the vagaries of reported weather can cause us to miss when the reported weather is well above minimums. At the moment the airplane reaches the DH or MDA without the appropriate things in sight, it's time to start aggressively climbing.

After the missed approach, some pilots have found challenges while setting the navigator for the next approach.

I have had questions from pilots about using the Garmin 430/530 for a missed approach and didn't know what the trouble was until another pilot and I were doing a missed approach. For some reason, confusion reigned. We did direct to the next airport, but then the navigator would not allow us to configure for an approach to that airport. It was a very simple thing. After selecting the next airport you have to press enter twice to make the switch. We knew that, but we were not doing that. Had one of us been alone and hand-flying, it would not have been a good scene.

Like some airline and corporate pilots observed in the beginning use of their glass cockpit systems, instrument flying is becoming a skill of system programming and management. Now that is true of most piston pilots. The good news is that a pilot who is completely proficient at this skill can fly IFR with somewhat less risk.