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Barriers to Pilot Monitoring

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
General Aviation Human Factors, November, 2008

Navigation:  Fundamentals of CRM | Resolving Conflict | Workload Management Checklist Usage | Briefings & Callouts | Training CRM | Threats to Safety | Intro to TEM Error Management | Integrating Threat & Error Management | TEM Countermeasures | FOTA | What are you doing over there? | New Captain Series

Threat & Error Series:  Threats to Safety | Intro to TEM | Error Management | Integrating TEM | TEM Countermeasures

This article is a follow-up to What are you doing over there? which is an article about Pilot Monitoring in action.  As you remember, Pilot Monitoring is an active process of mentally flying the aircraft and cross-checking the pilot who is flying. This process increases safety margins during flight and is just as important as flying the aircraft.  There are a number of ways that Pilots can fail to perform proper Pilot Monitoring.  Conversations, heads-down duties, and competing activities can all prevent pilots from seeing things they should.  The typical barriers to active Pilot Monitoring are distractions and interruptions.  Both are red flags that will increase the complexity of your flight operations.

Distraction is a diversion of attention from the intended focus to an unintended source.  It can be cause by a variety of factors: inability to pay attention, lack of interest, or greater interest in the distraction (such as with an abnormal condition).  Distractions come from external sources (through the 5 senses) or internal sources (mental status, beliefs, thoughts, fantasy, etc).   When a pilot is unable to cope with distractions it is usually a sign of an inability to prioritize competing demands. 

Consider the effect of competition between two pilots.  Type A personalities do well in aviation, and as such, Pilots want to demonstrate, even show off, their flying skill to other pilots. 
A student wants to impress his Flight Instructor.  A First Officer wants to impress his Captain.  A Captain wants to impress his check airman.  As you can see, this starts early in the flight training of a developing pilot.  Distraction is not a loss of skills but a loss of focus.

Stress in the flight environment can make you more susceptible to distraction and could cause reduced ability to discriminate important elements from the non-important. 

In today's flight environment, it seems as if flying was interrupt-driven. 
Interruptions can come in the form of information, the flow of which can almost seem like an attack.  In every phase of flight, other than cruise, an interruption can occur every 11 minutes.  The break in the flow of your normal duties can inject additional error into your work and cause deviation from standard operating procedure. 

Humans aren't good at multi-tasking.  What really occurs is a series of single tasks.  The effects of trying to time-slice a pilot's duties include:
  • Failure to monitor the flight path
  • Missing call-outs, ATC transmissions
  • Failure to detect and correct abnormal conditions & configurations
  • Failure to clarify uncertainties (clearances for example)
Flight crews do have control of some interruptions, but not all.  That can be empowering and can restore a pilot's attention to Monitoring or Flying duties.

Preventing distractions and interruptions is as simple is recognizing situations which make you vulnerable to increased operational complexity. 

A primary tool of improving Pilot Monitoring is maintaining the sterile cockpit rule.  Especially during times of lower workload (taxi-in and taxi-out), its enticing to discuss any variety of topics.  In fact, a good common sense application of the sterile cockpit rule will allow for good rapport between crewmembers but reduce distractions & interruptions which interfere with Monitoring or Flying duties. 

Good communication skills such as controlling unneccessary passenger announcements, non-flight related radio calls, and non-flight related conversations will allow more time for Pilot Monitoring or Flying duties.  Instead, keep cockpit conversations clear and concise and don't be shy to interrupt non-essential conversations to correct a flight related condition (altitude, course, etc).

Scheduling activities (i.e. initiation of normal checklists) for times of low workload is a great technique for bolstering Pilot Monitoring.  It's the reason we perform the approach briefing prior to top of descent.  Doing such a briefing afterwards puts it among checklists, additional communication requirements, and times of higher cognitive demand. 

Heads-down duties such as programming the GPS or FMS should be done during low workload times so the Pilot Monitoring can still maintain situational awareness of the flight path and parameters.  Typically such programming is done by the Pilot Monitoring and cross-checked, or confirmed before execution by the Pilot Flying.  Heads-down paperwork can also be delayed to low workload phases of flight.  And when engaged in these activities, the Pilot Monitoring should make a call out.  It can be "I'm off the radio" or "Heads down". 

Responding to abnormal conditions can become a high workload situation.  Use the automation to reduce the workload.  Ensure that someone is the Pilot Flying and allow the Pilot Monitoring to support situational awareness as well as working the checklist or process to correct the abnormal.  An abnormal can occur during normal checklists, so be wary of abnormal vibrations, engine fire, fluid leakage, odd smells, etc. 

If an interruption occurs during a normal checklist, make a point to announce the break in the checklist.  That explicit command increases the situational awareness of both pilots.  When resuming the checklist, start at the item right before the distraction.

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