Dealing with Distractions

By Gene Benson, Pilot and Aviation Educator

February 2020

I was proudly watching my grandson demonstrate his newly acquired skill at riding a bicycle devoid of training wheels. He was navigating the front lawn of his parent's house quite confidently. That is until the next-door neighbor stepped outside, waved, and yelled, "Hello!" Our young bike rider looked back over his shoulder toward the neighbor and promptly peddled directly into a bush. The rear of the bike rose up, launching number one grandson into a suborbital trajectory with a splashdown on the lawn about six feet ahead of the bush. Thanks to his mom's insistence on a helmet, kneepads, and elbow pads, the only serious injury was to his pride. For not paying attention while riding, his mom enforced a mandatory safety stand down, otherwise known as a timeout. The GBSB (Grandpa Bicycle Safety Board) determined the probable cause of the accident as follows: Collision with a bush resulting from loss of situational awareness by the rider, which was caused by a distraction. Contributing to the accident was the bush.


Distractions continue to result in accidents of all kinds. The young bike rider's mom told him that he needed to pay attention to what he was doing. Of course, that's right, but it's often easier said than done, especially when flying an airplane. We can't eliminate distractions, but we can do some things to help prevent the distraction from becoming a catastrophe.


Distractions can occur both before aircraft movement and while in motion. We should take steps to avoid these distractions. This would include doing preflight planning in a quiet environment rather than at the counter in the airport coffee shop. It would include doing the preflight inspection before passengers arrive and begin asking us questions. It also means briefing passengers on the "sterile cockpit" (no unnecessary conversation during critical operations). We should do this before the doors are closed. We must complete the programming of the GPS or autoflight system before we begin to taxi. And the granddaddy of all distractions can largely be avoided by making sure all latches on doors, luggage compartments, and cowlings are secure. Of course, a well-maintained airplane is less likely to present distractions such as alternators dropping offline or landing gear malfunctions.


But some distractions are likely to present themselves even with our best efforts at avoidance. So, we must also be prepared to mitigate the effects of the distraction when it occurs.


Prior-to-movement distractions can be just as dangerous as the ones that happen while in flight if they cause something to be skipped during an inspection or while running a checklist. Generally, if distracted during a procedure, we should go back three steps from where the distraction occurred.


The old advice of "aviate, navigate, communicate" continues to be valid while in motion. Aviate means to fly or taxi the airplane. That must be first in our priorities. We must discipline ourselves to maintain aircraft control and keep the airplane clear of obstacles and terrain (if in flight) regardless of what else is happening. If ATC calls with the IFR clearance while we are taxiing, we must tell them to standby until we are stopped. The call from ATC is the distraction, but our response is the mitigation. A passenger becoming ill during flight is a distraction, but our request for another passenger to assist the sick person is our mitigation. In the absence of another passenger to help, our seemingly heartless response that we will help by landing at the nearest suitable airport rather than trying to deal with the sick person is our mitigation. Then there is that unlatched door. There are very few airplanes that won't keep flying with a passenger door, baggage door, or cowling unlatched. The sound of rushing wind or the sight of an access door flapping in the breeze is a distraction to be sure. Our quick analysis that the airplane is still flying and controllable and our resolve to maintain focus on aircraft control and terrain avoidance is our mitigation.


Pilots who fly into bushes while distracted are generally more damaged than grandchildren running bikes into bushes, even if mom makes us wear our protective gear when we fly.


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Gene Benson has had a lifetime of aviation experience.  He has lived and breathed aviation from his first official flying lesson at the age of 14, to his first solo on his sixteenth birthday, to his 8,000 hours of flight instruction given. He has served as the Dean of Aeronautics for an aviation college, as an instructor for a major domestic airline, consultant to several foreign and domestic airlines, and to business aviation.  His academic background includes degrees in psychology, education, and business. His specialty now is the application of human factors to error reduction and safety in aviation and other industries. He is presently a FAASTeam Lead Representative and has recently served as a member of the NBAA Safety Committee. View Gene’s work at


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