Disconnecting from Deadly Distractions

Focus only on the most critical tasks and figure out which ones can wait.

Neuroscientists tell us it is impossible for the human brain to multitask. We might think we’re becoming more productive by splitting our attention, but in reality when we attempt to multitask we really end up doing twice as much as we should, half as well as we could.

There are unavoidable negative impacts when we divide our limited attention. In aviation, these distractions can be deadly. A major source of distractions nowadays, of course, is the smartphones we carry with us everywhere. We’re constantly checking email, reading text messages and glancing at pop-up alerts, even though none of these electronic distractions are likely very important when weighed against the others tasks we should be focusing on — like driving a car or operating an airplane.

Recently two packed regional jets nearly collided on a runway at a busy major airport after the pilots of one of the airplanes became distracted and taxied onto an active runway just as the other jet was initiating its takeoff roll. Not long before this incident, a medevac helicopter pilot who was texting with a woman right before a flight neglected to ensure there was enough fuel onboard, leading to a deadly crash that was attributed to fuel exhaustion. We all remember the pilots who fly more than 100 miles past their intended airport because they had their noses buried in a laptop computer. In Bedford, Massachusetts, last year the crew of a Gulfstream IV neglected multiple checklist items and missed warnings that the airplane’s gust lock was still engaged, leading to a fiery crash when the jet careened off the runway.

The result of our multitasking mindset, sadly, is a trend toward procedural noncompliance. We skip checklist items or don’t use checklists at all. We allow our attention to be diverted by noncritical tasks, such as entering waypoints in the GPS when we should be focused on taxiing to the active runway. We let our minds focus on the wrong things.

Research has shown it can take just three seconds of inattention for a pilot to lose control of an airplane. The only way to avoid a potentially calamitous outcome is to disconnect completely from deadly distractions by changing our mindsets before we even arrive at the airport. We as pilots must retrain our brains to focus only on the most critical tasks and figure out which ones can wait.

Multitasking might work OK at an office desk, but it has no place in the cockpit of an airplane.

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