We Do What We Do

Dr. M. Penny Levin, Ph.D., CFI

August 2019

A “habitual behavior pattern” is the tendency we all have, to acquire ingrained patterns of response when placed in similar surroundings or doing familiar tasks. We develop a way of reacting, and then tend to do the same thing in the same situation over and over.  If we think of an aircraft pre-flight or prepping for an approach, such habits are obviously quite useful.  They allow us to develop familiar routines and support safe and consistent adherence to procedures.   Unfortunately, this tendency that we all share may also have unintended consequences as we learn to fly Technologically Advanced Aircraft (TAA).

According to the most recent Nall Report, General Aviation accident rates have remained relatively stable despite the increased use of Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) and the proliferation of TAA and other enhanced aircraft safety features.  Seventy-four percent of all GA accidents continue to result from pilot error, while only 16% of all accidents and 8% of fatal accidents now stem from mechanical failures.  If the aircraft are more reliable and the avionics more advanced, we must consider the reasons that our safety record has not improved.

While distracted flying statistics are hard to come by, the dangers of driving distracted are well documented.  The National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use results in 1.6 million car accidents per year, six times the rate for driving drunk.  In 2017, distracted driving accounted for 3,166 deaths.1 While most of these deaths have been attributed to cell phone usage, the impact of more complex dashboard resources has not yet been studied and may well increase the dangers we face on the road.

If we think about screens, consider our normal or typical behavior patterns.  We focus on computer screens at work.  We stare at our cell phones and quickly divert our attention to them when they “ping” us with a new message.  If we use a flight sim or play video games, we take risks knowing that a crash has no real-life consequences and that the program can easily be reset.  The impact of habitual behavior patterns, like many psychological phenomena, has not yet found its way into how we think about flying TAA.

In the current cockpit environment, we have essentially placed ourselves in a situation where we are working from both an iPad and dual computer screens, with a high demand to quickly process complex and rapidly changing information.  In this environment, unlike others, the screens provide real world mission-critical information.  Physicians aside, this is counter to our habitual behavior patterns. Yet, for most of us, this factor was not part of our training and is not part of our ongoing thought processes as we fly TAA.

So, how can we start to interrupt these patterns?  First, awareness of these tendencies is extremely important.  Before your next flight, honestly evaluate how you typically interact with screens in your non-flying life. Do you text and drive?  Text and walk?  Must you look at your phone every time it pings?  Do you hyper-focus on the computer at work?  Is it hard to get your attention when you are on a device?   Does your attention easily drift to your devices “just to check and see if there is anything new”?  Again, be truthful with yourself! Then consider whether these habits will serve you well in the cockpit.

Next, be brutally honest as you consider your familiarity with both your Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) and/or glass display.  How often do you fly the glass? How often are you on Foreflight?  How much “eyes-down” time do you need to program your iPad or move between screens and functions?  How familiar are you with all the buttons on your G1000?  How systematic is your scan on the Primary Flight Display (PFD) and how much time do you need to assimilate the range of available information?  Do you typically scan every item or just those critical to the task at hand?  Do you chase the needles, fixating on the display for extended periods of time?  If so, perhaps you might benefit from simulator or Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) ground time in the plane to improve those skills.  Until we are truly proficient scanning the display and programming the units, we draw away much needed attention from flying the airplane.

Finally, consider a systematic way to regularly remind yourself that unless you are on an instrument flight plan, most of the information you need, including traffic, is to be found outside of the aircraft.  In much the same way that we need reminders to change tanks or perform other routine checks, many of us need mental reminders to focus our attention where it is most needed. That “traffic” we are looking at is not really on our screen, it is in our path.

Perhaps we should consider updating the old saying “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” to “Aviate, Navigate, Computicate, Communicate!”

1 https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving). 


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M. Penny Levin, Ph.D., CFI is a psychologist in practice for more than 20 years, a CFI and a Certified Personal Trainer. She founded aeropsych.com, a consulting group providing services to enhance individual and team performance, improve safety, and boost confidence across a range of settings. Dr. Levin has presented numerous workshops throughout the US on a range of topics related to flight safety and flight instruction.  She can be reached at [email protected] or through aeropsych.com.

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