Cautious Interruptus

If I told you that I think I’ve found the cure for the common cold, would you listen? (Despite my having no medical credentials whatsoever and the fact this isn’t exactly the New England Journal of Medicine, you might indeed continue to read this, but you would do so with a large helping of salt and a jaundiced eye, I’m sure.) Well, it so happens that I can offer you something of possibly equal value in the aeronautical arena. What if I told you that I can present you with potential immunity from distraction? (you know, that veritable petard upon which we can so easily become publicly hoisted?) Well, let me bend your ear a little.

Did you ever see anyone pull away from a tie-down spot, only to be gently reminded that their aircraft was still not quite free of one or more surly bonds? (This reminder usually appears in the form of braid-on-braid nylon.) Did you ever hear about someone taking off with a tow bar, still in tow? And sidling just a wee bit closer to things sepulchral, how many NTSB scenarios have we all read with a shudder, in which merry cockpit banter and bonhomie is soon followed by sudden loss of control, panic, and a fade to black? And by the way, before the recent embarrassing escapade involving that Cessna 150 from Pennsylvania flying over Washington DC (first into the Air Defense Identification zone around Washington DC, then the smaller Flight Restricted Zone, and then the coup de grace, prohibited area P-56) begins to fade from our collective memory, would you not agree that a little more focus on navigation might have improved their situational awareness? I’d imagine that their in-flight cockpit discussions probably covered a wide-ranging variety of topics…

Back in August of 1998, Delta Airlines flight 1141 was beginning the second half of its journey from Jackson, Mississippi to Salt Lake City. The crew had a v-e-r-y long and slow journey from their gate to being first in line for takeoff at Dallas-Fort Worth, as there were a number of aircraft ahead of them. The backup on both runway 17s was bad and they had been offered the use of runway 18L as a more promising alternative. However, they also then had to endure a half-hour wait due to the unanticipated closure of one of the bridges over an interstate highway running through the airport complex. The decision was made to shut down one of the Boeing 727’s three engines to save fuel. During this lengthy stop and go promenade, one of the flight attendants stepped into the cockpit to join the Captain, First Officer, and Second Officer-remember, this was when three person flight decks were not uncommon-in lengthy discussions on corporate politics, salaries, housing, birds, the dating habits of flight attendants, and other generally non-pertinent topics. They rushed to restart the engine and just before nine am they were cleared for takeoff. When the Captain began to rotate the aircraft for takeoff, there were two loud ‘pops’ as the aircraft approached a full stall. The aircraft began a violent roll and at least one of its engines went into compressor stall. Just over 20 feet off the ground, the plane was now traveling at 165 knots. But the Boeing’s right wing struck an ILS localizer antenna which spun the aircraft longitudinally and caused the aircraft to crash. The aircraft broke in two and skidded to a stop. As the evacuation began, a fire broke out near the fuel lines in the rear of the aircraft. Of 108 passengers and crew aboard, 14 died. When the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report, it said that this accident was due to ‘the Captain and First Officer’s inadequate cockpit discipline which resulted in the flight crew’s attempting to take off without the wing flaps and slats properly configured.’ Granted, only the most obstructive cockpit companion (or oblivious passenger) could ever provide this equivalent amount of distraction during our usually orderly and methodical process of herding a piston aircraft into the sky, but still the implications cannot fail to impress.

The world may be but a stage, but real life never follows the script. There will always be interruptions and distractions, to which our ad-libbed responses are neurologically at odds with habitual and practiced sequences and actions. After all, that’s what checklists are all about: to ensure that the aircraft gets configured to meet the performance specifications needed for each phase of flight to be completed safely. But checklists alone cannot insure that we will always prevail over interruptions or distractions (which can influence us to suspend an ongoing flow of activity or defer a planned action) and seamlessly resume what we were doing afterwards, and with the same focus.

What I meant by ‘neurologically at odds’ is this. Communication between crew members is good (when it’s relevant to the task at hand, or when the workload can allow it, if it isn’t). But extraneous conversation demands a good part of your attention. First you must listen to and interpret what someone else is saying, and then formulate a response. Often the response is at least partially ready before the other person is finished speaking, and so your responses occupy space in short-term memory until it’s your turn to speak. Then you say whatever you have to say, and the process continues. Conversation inherently occupies significant mental bandwidth because of its inherent novelty. (You often have no idea what someone else is about to say, etc.) Here’s another aspect of the problem: research has shown that most people do two things well, and at the same time, only under limited circumstances. This is because we perform tasks two ways; first via a conscious system that is slow, requires effort, and is inherently sequential. Many complex skills are acquired involving this sort of process; when we learn something complicated that requires multiple modalities of awareness, it takes time and repetition before we can integrate these disparate parts into a functioning whole. Learning to fly (or drive, for that matter) is certainly an example. Simply put, the multiple demands can easily exceed our conscious capacity. The second process involved in performing a task is an automated one; it is rapid, fluid, and requires little attention-or at least, effort. Driving your car along a familiar road is an example of automatic processing; talking with your passenger involves conscious processing. If your passenger asks you to take a different route involving an unfamiliar diversion from your routine, you can easily miss your turnoff, especially if you are involved in a conversation at the time. This error is known as ‘habit capture’.

So, distractions can have a significant adverse effect on routine activities. They are frequently involved in aviation accidents. What’s more, they can come from without, or within. (The most obvious example is the well known ‘I’M SAFE’ acronym for illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, and emotion. Even if you’re just letting your mind wander back to the office, nonetheless this can theoretically constitute a distraction which might adversely influence the outcome of a flight.) Some distractions merely sideline your activity, while others (say when someone at work is upset about something and comes into your office) can literally rearrange them.

Now when it comes to short term memory, most of us have a pretty short stack. And guess what sorts of activities call upon short term memory? Mostly they are things that we encounter at isolated times, things for which we don’t make advance plans, or expect to ponder and remember for future reference. (Hint: can you recite your preflight checklist?) As a rule of thumb, short term memory is good for about seven unrelated or unrehearsed things. If a distraction comes along, whatever was going on gets the bum’s rush and might not make it back in line, so to speak. The most common kind of interruption is external (such as that brusque, blustery client expecting your immediate and undivided attention, although body language or simply approaching someone could have a similar effect). For me, and likely many of you, the ubiquitous intruder is the telephone. But as I said, merely thinking about something unrelated can do the trick, too.

Humans are inquisitive. After all, that’s how we got to fly. Our highly evolved-or so we would prefer to think-brains are constantly alert to our surroundings, taking in details on many levels, consciously and otherwise, every waking moment. Like elevator music, or billboards, or our own breathing, of which we may be dimly aware, we learn to filter much of it out. If we choose to focus on it, whether because it exceeds a certain neuronal threshold such as another airplane caught in our peripheral vision, or the engine entering auto-rough mode over a large body of water, or if something particularly intrigues us, it can gain our attention (or become a distraction).

So that’s all nice to know, but is there a magic pill? No, there isn’t. I don’t mean to come off as dissembling or metaphysical here, but first you must climb a small mountain. The goal is simply self-awareness, and you may already be there. You must first determine your own predisposition toward distractibility, and you should also think about your personality and its effect on others. In doing so, you can have a more realistic reference for just how hard you may have to work to achieve ‘enlightenment’. (I suppose the ideal pre-flight student who is totally immune to being distracted might seem outwardly autistic, but you also have to be practical here!)

The goal is to stay focused on whatever phase of flight in which you are currently engaged, being able to quickly categorize a non-meaningful distraction and ignore it, while at the same time remaining aware enough of its presence to shift your attention if necessary. The right balance of attentiveness and disregard involves being flexible and able to quickly shift gears, and also having the ability to return precisely to the point at which you had to divert your attention.

All of this is easy to say, of course; but our habit patterns are already fairly well established. Here (at last) are the ‘bottom line’ take-home points to all of this. They may seem overly obvious as well as perhaps a tad excessive, but they are both proven techniques.

  • First, unless you can honestly say that a particular conversation is urgent, when your aircraft approaches what you consider to be a decision point or you enter a high workload phase of flight, can it; otherwise keep it concise, and try to limit it to the task at hand. John and Martha King have suggested addressing the issue or potential for bruised egos when one’s conversation gets routed-and they practice this themselves-by addressing each other with formal flight deck titles (perhaps something like ‘captain’; I can’t recall exactly, although it doesn’t matter). Even in cruise flight, practice frequent ‘ops checks’ by scanning or reviewing those sorts of things that can safely be ‘sub-commutated’ to infrequent intervals (such as fuel quantities, or oil pressure). This goes against the natural tendency to loosen up to the point of somnolence sometimes, but after all, there are no rest stops up there if something goes wrong and you don’t catch it in time.
  • The other part of this is that if you are interrupted, say during a preflight, lean in the direction of being pathologically precise and make a note, mental or otherwise, as to where you left off, so that you can come back to that same point, and consider any interruption as a red flag. The strategy used by NASA is to first identify the interruption, then ask yourself what it was you were doing when it occurred, and finally to decide what you need to do to get back where you left off. It all boils down to paying attention to what you are doing (but that does over-simplify it to the point of being impractically vague).