Distractions affect all of us


Distractions are the number one cause of forgetting things.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is we are always thinking ahead of what we are doing. Therefore when we are distracted we tend to think we were further along in our task than we actually were.

The second is our short term memory is very short so any distraction may cause us to lose what we were thinking of when distracted.

A pilot arrived at a maintenance hangar to pick up his C-172 which should have been ready after a 100 hour inspection. It was late afternoon and he had a flight of about 100 miles back to his home airport before grounding.

The aircraft was not ready. The chief mechanic was working on the aircraft himself in an attempt to get it out of the hangar. Shortly before the mechanic was to replace the engine cowlings, he was called to the phone. He glanced at the waiting pilot and called to another mechanic to finish up and cowl the aircraft.

The second mechanic looked the engine compartment over and everything appeared to be where it was supposed to be so he replaced the engine cowlings. The chief mechanic returned and saw the cowlings had been replaced, so he signed out the logbooks and sent the pilot on his way. The flight to the pilot’s home base was uneventful, but the next day he tried to start the aircraft and it would not start. He removed the engine cowlings and noted that 3 of the 4 sparkplug wires had become unattached from the sparkplugs.

The distraction of the telephone coupled with the pressure to get the aircraft inspection completed resulted in the chief mechanic not giving a full hand over briefing to the second mechanic. He was thinking ahead to replacing the cowlings and that is what he mentioned. The second mechanic saw that the sparkplug wires were connected, but did not check to see if they were tightened.

Fortunately the sparkplug wires did not all come loose in flight.

A rental pilot was performing a pre-flight inspection on a C-172 when the three friends he was taking on a sightseeing flight arrived at the airfield fence. The young pilot stopped what he was doing and let his friends in through the FBO. He then completed his inspection, loaded his passengers and began taxiing the aircraft.

The FBO owner saw the aircraft taxing with the tow bar still attached to the nose wheel and called the FSS specialist to request that the aircraft be stopped and shut down so the tow bar could be removed.

A commercial pilot was interrupted during his pre-flight inspection to answer a phone call from IFR Flight Data regarding his flight plan. After the call, he continued with the inspection. After starting the engines he noted the engine temperature in the right engine was climbing into the red. He shut down the engine and went to take a look. He had forgotten to remove the engine intake covers from the right engine.

Both pilots returned to where they thought they were in the inspection process. We usually think about 3 steps ahead of where we are during any task so it is easy to forget steps when distracted. A good rule to follow is whenever we are distracted or interrupted is to go back at least 3 steps from where we thought we were when distracted. If unsure, start over.

The length of our short term memories compounds this. Our short-term memory is only about 30 seconds. We must do something specific to transfer information from short to long term memory. We normally do this unconsciously, but it does take some concentration.

The other problem with short-term memory is that is has a limited capacity of six to seven unrelated items. Maybe that is a good thing. When we get distracted, there are a limited number of things we can forget.

Fatigue and stress directly affect our ability to transfer information to long-term memory and to access information in our long-term memory. Therefore when we are tired or stressed, we increase our chances significantly of forgetting to do things we intend to do. We are all tired or stressed at times. When we are, we must avoid distractions and multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is actually self-distraction. We are not as capable of multi-tasking as we think we are. This is why some provinces are banning cell phone use while driving.

The number one distraction for all of us is the phone/cell phone. There are times when the phone should not be answered and probably should be turned off. The vast majority of the calls we receive could be missed without the world ending. Most of the remaining calls can go to voice mail and be returned at a more convenient time.

The next most common distraction is people directly wanting our attention. This includes friends, significant others, co-workers and bosses. When we wish to talk to someone, we seldom, if ever, observe what they are doing before we interrupt them. We are a social society and most of us do not mind being talked to.

There are times though when we do not wish to be disturbed and times when we should not be disturbed. Be courteous and take the time to observe those you wish to talk to, to determine if now is a good time to do so. If we are not sure, we can ask if the individual has a moment. This will give them the opportunity to complete a task or to at least put themselves in a position to transfer information to long term memory and be prepared to pay full attention to us.

Distractions affect all of us. The best we can do is minimize them. Mistakes caused by distractions are at least, embarrassing and at worst, damaging. 

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies air charters. He still freelances as a flying instructor and seminar facilitator. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.

Got an aviation safety story to tell? Dale Nielsen would like to hear from pilots who have educational aviation experiences to relate. Excerpts from these stories will be used in upcoming safety articles. Dale can be contacted via e-mail: dale@flighttrainingmanuals.com