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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Seasonal Distraction:

A Pilot's Enemy During the Holidays!

"Off the Record Q & A with a Local A.M.E."

DR. Larry

Dr. Larry,

  • December 8, 1972; United Air Lines 737-200, Flight 553; Midway Airport, Chicago—crew stalled their plane and crashed.
  • January 13, 1982; Air Florida 737-200, Washington DC—crew forgot to turn on deicing, didn’t identify the need for more power and crashed in the Potomac.
  • December 20, 1995; American Airlines 757 inbound Cali Columbia—Lack of situational awareness and procedures, crashed into a mountain.
  • December 20, 2008; Continental Airlines 737-500; Flight 1404; Denver, CO—The aircraft skidded across a taxiway during takeoff in Houston.
  • December 28, 1978; United Air Lines DC8; Flight 173; Portland, OR—crew ran the plane out of gas over a landing gear indication.
  • December 29 2009; American Airlines 737-800; Flight 331; Kingston, Jamaica—Crew landed during a rainstorm and couldn’t stop, crashing off the end of the runway.

Last week you discussed depression, but what about distraction? It’s no mystery that accidents happen during the holiday months. Could there be a correlation to holiday distraction and the accident rate? Mental fitness is as equally, or more important, as physical fitness. What can pilot do to be safe during the holidays, or any time during stress?

Dr. Larry says:

Karlene, it would not surprise me to learn aviation incidents occur at a higher rate around the winter holidays than at other times of the year because the level of stress and anxiety is often much higher at this time. People try to do more, schedules become altered, sleep is affected and fatigue becomes a significant player.

Confusion and poor decision-making are consequences of being tired. Reaction times are slower and our ability to stay on task is compromised. Distractibility occurs more readily when fatigue is present and it’s easy to be overwhelmed with projects and obligations.

Holidays also create a plethora of visual, auditory and physical stimuli such as lights, ads, horns, crowds, traffic, etc. Too much “noise” of any kind and our minds become saturated causing our attention to fade.

How then to protect against distraction and mental meltdowns?

Mental acuity is the combination of preparation, alertness and fitness. Did you know the brain, like our muscles, can be conditioned and strengthened? Ongoing research centers like the Cleveland Heart-Brain Institute. confirm the regular practice of brain games and challenging our learning capacity leads to better outcomes when the brain is injured, as in strokes, heart attacks and concussions. Like running on a treadmill, the better the conditioning, the longer the staying power, and the same holds true for alertness.

Being well rested is job one. Caffeine and other stimulants may speed up metabolism and increase mental alertness but its benefits wear off and what’s left is often below standards. Maintain hydration, minimize alcohol, push the veggies and fruits and avoid the temptation to over eat. As in flying, peak performance will be affected if weighted down.

In aviation and most endeavors, planning and preparation predict successful outcomes. Avoid over-scheduling. Anxiety is a consequence of tight timelines. Make a list of tasks to accomplish and be realistic with what is possible. Resist the temptation to do it all. Guaranteed, there’s a price to pay.

Create personal boundaries and don’t be afraid to say no. Lose the guilt complex and do what is healthy for yourself and your immediate family. Pay attention to signs of anxiety, irritability and irrational behavior. Ask yourself why you are behaving badly. Stop and rebalance. Mandate time for yourself, even if it’s 5 to 10 minutes of meditation or deep breathing a couple times a day.

For all the excitement, noise and confusion, the holiday season is a beautiful time of year. Be prepared, practice gratitude, wellness and patience, and you will automatically minimize the potential calamities of the season.

Happy and healthy holidays to all!

Dr. Larry

Thank you Dr. Larry! I am working on gratitude, wellness, and patience. My friends say I need to work on saying, "no." Maybe a New Years resolution for that one.

Enjoy the Journey!

XOX Karlene


  1. You missed one thing, the folks in Air Florida didn't forget to turn the deicing equipment off. They intentionally ignored it on the checklist.

  2. And also the Eastern Airlines flight 401 that crashed in Everglades in 1972, a beautiful L1011. The whole crew tried to change the bulb of the landing gear signalisation and they forgot to watch altimeter... :-/
    It is sometimes impossible not to hurry or not to solve problems. But there always should be at least one person in the cockpit who does not concentrate only at them...

  3. I love the idea of brain fitness for staying alert. So much fascinating brain research these days! Making a conscious decision to take the pressure off ourselves when we start to feel stressed and irritable is huge, too. We should all carry sticky notes around to remind us.
    Best of luck on your New Year's resolutions, Karlene!

  4. I once lost ten whole minutes on an instruction flight. It was about two weeks after my sons accident. I was with a low hours student and we were navigating around a mountain. My gaze dropped down near the site where he had been smashed up, and my mind went... I remember suddenly looking up and the mountain that was ahead of me before I looked down was now pretty close to my side. I remember telling myself 'that is the first and the last time you bring anything personal into the cockpit' It is a mental approach... I was fortunate, once in thousands of hours and no incident. When we are in the plane our focus must be about the plane -we CANNOT have any other focus - or we will not remember our last flight...

  5. Annonymous, That is a good point! But, it's amazing how skipping something on a checklist can happen when one is distracted. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Teri, That is a perfect example. Sometimes we're our own worst enemies getting all caught up in something that wasn't an issue. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Thank you Linda! I know I can make them happen withe encouragement from my friends!

  8. Capt. Yaw, that was a perfect example of the power of distraction. And you're right, we can't allow anything to come into the cockpit other than the task on hand. Focus is essential. The stories that I could tell you on what's "almost" happened when the talk shifted to the worries outside our planes. Thanks for the great comment.


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