National Security: DistractionApr 17th, 2012 | By Submitted | Category: Editorials
By Joe Boyles
For those of you who follow newspaper crash reports, you know that I was involved in an auto accident on Good Friday (see last week’s Carrier front page). I never go by my first name David, but always by the shortened version of my middle name Joseph.
For the record, I was stopped at the intersection of highways 255 and 6 when a violent, two-car collision occurred not 20 feet in front of me. I caught the ricochet on the driver’s side. Other than flying glass, Linda and I weren’t injured although our Camry was totaled. The other parties walked away from this too, fortunately.
The driver who caused the crash apparently completely missed the warning signs (two signs, rumble strips, flashing red light, and stop sign) and bolted through the intersection only to be broadsided by a pickup motoring on SR 6. For whatever reason, the young driver was apparently distracted from the primary job of safely driving her vehicle.
That got me to thinking about the business of distraction, a frequent and often deadly occurrence. In my flying career, I investigated many aircraft accidents where the only plausible answer was that the pilot became distracted from his primary duty (flying) and “put the aircraft into a position from which recovery was not possible.”
What caused that distraction? Could be a lot of things. For example, the distraction could be: another aircraft; a warning signal in the cockpit; focusing attention on something away from the motion of the aircraft; etc. Whatever the reason, the pilot diverted his attention to some other activity other than his primary job.
One such accident was a single Phantom flying a low level over southern Germany. He came across two A-10s working over a simulated target on the ground. As the F-4 turned to keep the other two fighters in sight, he failed to notice a tower on a hill secured by guide wires. When the pilot did turn his head around to the front, he was nose-to-nose with one of those cables. When he snatched the stick to avoid the collision, the aircraft “departed controlled flight (high speed stall).” At that instance, they were so close to the ground that they were dead. The ground always wins those encounters!
In another instance, the test pilot was so engrossed in helping the engineer calculate the airspeed for the next test point that he failed to follow the checklist and transfer fuel forward for the next configuration. The plane was tail heavy because it was out-of-balance and stalled, crashing into the desert floor. And this accident wasn’t caused by inexperience; the test pilot was the most experienced large aircraft test pilot in the world.
Whether we’re flying a high-speed jet, operating a car, or doing a myriad of other things, what causes our attention to be diverted? There are many answers to that question. Does that mean we can’t multi-task? No, but some people are better at this than others. Back in my flying days, I could read the checklist, talk on the radio, check the radar, scan the horizon for bogeys … literally a jillion things at once, but when I was flying at 540 knots at 75 feet above the ground, I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I was focused on the immediate threat – the ground and obstacles in front of my jet. A moment of inattention in that regime could spell disaster.
There are lessons in this for all of us. Do not narrow our focus (aka tunnel vision) on anything other than our primary duty. If you’re driving a car, then that is your primary duty. And focus your attention commensurate with driving conditions. For example, I frequently talk on my cell phone when driving, but I won’t do that if I’m driving at high speed on a crowded freeway.
We can all learn from every mishap. I hope the others in my accident did. While I didn’t do anything wrong to cause the accident, I’ll never again approach that intersection the same way. I’m much more cautious as the result of my experience.
This day in history: Seventy years ago, Jimmy Doolittle led 16 B-25 medium bombers to attack targets around Tokyo. The Army Air Force bombers were launched from the USS Hornet, a Navy carrier. It was a daring attack that really boosted American morale in the early days of World War II. Check out “30 Seconds over Tokyo,” a classic movie that is frequently broadcast on TCM.