Battling the Attraction of Distraction

No pilot is immune from the potentially fatal attraction of distraction, especially when it comes to dealing with technology.

Excerpted from FAA Safety Briefing May-June 2016. Just sharing! All credits to the authors and the publisher.

Synthetic vision on cockpit display (2)

Photo by Maj. Robert Bowden, Civil Air Patrol

Battling the Attraction of Distraction


A while back — in the January/February 2014 issue of this magazine, to be precise — I offered a confessional piece called “The Lost Art of Paying Attention.” I wrote about how painfully easy it is to succumb to the subtle tyranny of technology. Our glorious glowing gadgets tempt us to shirk not only our see-and-avoid responsibilities, but also a vast swath of the flight management work. They lull us away from the discipline of critical thinking and true situational awareness, a term that implies far more than a position check on the moving map.

And, as Sabrina Woods wrote in “Surprise!” (FAA Safety Briefing – March/April 2016), the cockpit is becoming quite a busy place as more and more technological upgrades become available. Dazzling electronic and LCD flight deck arrays are replac­ing traditional analog gauges. Electronic flight bags (EFB) can tell you almost everything you want to know with the swipe of a finger. ADS-B In and Out monitor traffic. Once you’ve hit that desired altitude and cruise speed, an autopilot can take over, leaving you to sit back, relax, and observe the progress of your flight. Everything is perfect … until suddenly nothing makes sense.

No pilot is immune from the potentially fatal attraction of distraction, especially when it comes to dealing with technology. New technologies are the focus of this issue, but you can also be distracted by the vagaries of older gadgets, or by the quirks of a “FrankenPlane” aircraft with new avionics stitched in beside the original equipment. So we thought that some of the cautions offered before bear repeating.

Manage the Machines

Technology and automation applied to an actively-managed flight can magnify its safety and efficiency, but when applied to a non-managed flight, they can very efficiently get you into very big trouble. Regardless of how good they are, today’s avionics and handheld devices do not have sufficient intelligence to do more than exactly what we com­mand them to do. If we issue the wrong commands because of inattention or incomplete understanding of the technology, the flight will potentially go off track in every possible way.

Know Your Equipment

You need to know the equipment cold. When I teach the use of GPS moving map navigators, I stress the importance of knowing how to precisely navigate both the mechanical structure (aka the “knobology”) and the library structure — that is, how to efficiently find and display the information you need for any given phase of flight. You need to know its normal and abnormal operations, so you can avoid those pesky and potentially dangerous “what’s it doing” situations. You need to know its limitations — what the technology can do for you and, equally impor­tant, what functions are simply beyond its capability.

Set the Tripwires

As Kenny Rogers sang in “The Gambler,” you need to “know when to hold `em, and know when to fold `em.” If you find yourself baffled, confused, or in any way uncertain about what the technology is doing, it’s time to turn it off and reorient yourself. That certainly applies to the autopilot, but it also includes panel-mount, hand-held, or tablet-based navigators if you don’t understand where they are taking you — or if you have any doubts as to the safety of the suggested course. Never forget that the magenta line can guide you direct to anywhere … including direct through regulatory obstacles (e.g., restricted/prohibited/controlled airspace), man-made obstacles, or natural ones such as terrain.

Stay Focused

If you are lucky enough to have a good autopilot, it’s great to have “George” tend to the basic flying chores while you — at least in theory — focus on more important things like positional awareness and, more broadly, overall situational awareness (e.g., status of weather, fuel, engine indications). The challenge, of course, is to actually direct that freed-up mental and physical capacity to those more important positional and situation awareness considerations. That means overcoming the very human tendency to lapse into “fat, dumb, and happy” complacency that could cause you to miss something like an abnormal indication on an engine gauge. Find ways to keep yourself continu­ously in the loop. For example:

  • Use callouts to maintain positional awareness (e.g., “crossing WITTO intersection, next waypoint is MITER intersection”).
  • Announce changes to heading, altitude, and frequency.
  • Record those changes in an abbreviated navigation log. The act of speaking and writing bolsters your awareness.
  • Announce any change to navigation source (e.g., “switching from GPS to VLOC”) and autopilot modes. I encourage pilots to read each item on the autopilot status display aloud every time there is a change stating which modes are armed and which modes are engaged.

Today’s technology provides the foundation for an unprecedented level of situational awareness. We just have to use it for that purpose, and pay atten­tion in order to repel the all-too-human attraction to technological distractions that could detract from flight safety.

Susan Parson (, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

X-Ray Vision and Alphabet Soup


Synthetic vision on cockpit display

Synthetic vision displayed on a cockpit display. Photo courtesy of Avidyne

I may be part of the last generations to remember the ads for X-ray glasses that appeared in the back of comic books and magazines aimed at young people. These mail-order novelties usually sold for a few quarters, or dollars in the later years. Of course they weren’t exactly legit, but who wouldn’t be willing to risk a few bucks for even the slightest chance for such power? Well, as it turns out, the power of “X-ray” vision is not so much of a far-fetched novelty anymore — at least in aviation.

We now have two technologies that allow us to literally see through the dark and the clouds. While there is some overlap in this technology, this article will focus on Enhanced Vision (EV) and Synthetic Vision (SV), rather than night vision. For more information on night vision, please see the articles listed in the Learn More section. EV and SV use very different approaches and technologies to give you a bright and clear picture of the outside world, no matter how dark or cloudy the sky may be. Naturally, each of these approaches has its advantages and drawbacks.

Synthetic Vision

SV is by far the more accessible in terms of cost and equipment. It relies on marrying technologies already included in many avionics suites and even some hand-held systems. SV uses a detailed and high quality database of terrain features and obstacle data to create a virtual ‘world.’ The SV system uses an accurate aircraft position provided by an on-board GPS to display this virtual world around your aircraft. The advantage of this system is that regardless of the weather or light conditions, you will have a “clear view” out of the front of the aircraft. You could literally paper the windshield of the aircraft (not a suggestion, mind you!) and still see outside. It’s important to remember that SV is not a navigational system. SV designed to improve situational and terrain awareness and is not intended, or authorized, to be used as a navigational system. There are two potential faults though — location data and database information. While GPS is usually very reliable, its weak signal is vulnerable to interference. Although, the FCC has done a great job of shielding GPS frequencies, the possibility exists that someone transmitting on or near those frequencies could potentially jam the GPS. And of course there’s the potential for active interference or spoofing, but that’s usually limited to military action. These GPS issues are not a fault with SV and apply to any system that uses GPS.

The other potential issue is the quality and currency of the database used to create the virtual world your aircraft is relying on for safe navigation. While terrain is pretty much static, obstacles are constantly changing. This is probably the biggest issue with SV, because what you’re seeing may not be a 100 percent accurate depiction of the actual world outside. In other words, your SV system is only as good as the its foundational database. So it is worth investigating how adept a system is at creating and updating that database.

But perhaps the best advantage SV has is its relatively low cost. You can add it to many popular flight instrument systems or even utilize systems built into accessories like a portable GPS unit, or an app on your tablet. There are many variables, so it’s worth investigating which one best suits your needs.

Enhanced Vision

EV may seem like a close cousin of Synthetic Vision, but it’s actually a very different technology. EV uses sensors on the aircraft to “see through” weather or darkness. While this sensor comes in a variety of forms, by far the most common is infrared (IR), which senses temperature differences and produces a high quality real-time image of the outside scene. EV allows a pilot to see through darkness, smoke, haze, smog, dust, light fog, and even rain. In heavier conditions, EV may lose some of its ability relative to SV, but what it shows you is what’s actually out there, not what the database says should be out there.

There are a wide variety of EV systems on the market and prices vary greatly, for good reason. The older and more advanced systems use a super cooled IR sensor to allow the sensor to more easily detect the temperature differences. However, these systems EV allows a pilot to see through darkness, smoke, haze, smog, dust, light fog, and even rain. require a mechanical means of cooling, which limits the number of aircraft that can support this added equipment and which can add significantly to the installation cost. Previously, EV was the purview of high-end business jets as an installation could run close to a million dollars. Even on the cheaper end it probably was between $250,000 and $500,000. More recently, new systems have come onto the market that don’t require mechanical cooling. With this new generation, we’re looking at a ballpark figure of $25,000. While still a significant investment, this price point brings EV to the realm of possibility for GA.

Synthetic vision on IPAD

Synthetic vision displayed on an iPad.Photo courtesy of ForeFlight

The key advantage of EV is that what you see is what’s actually outside. There’s no concern about the location inaccuracies or the database being out of date. That being said, the very significant cost difference, many thousands of dollars vs. a few hundred, means that EV isn’t nearly as accessible as SV.

What Difference Does One Little Letter Make?

Some eagle-eyed readers may have noticed I’m using EV in lieu of Enhanced Flight Vision Systems (EFVS) or Enhanced Vision Systems (EVS). You may have also noticed I didn’t mention anything about the operational credit that is given to EFVS on approaches. This was intentional. While it may seem like the only difference is one little letter, it’s not — at least as far as FAA regulations are concerned. First and foremost, the regulations permit a qualified EFVS to be used in lieu of natural vision to descend below DA/DH or MDA down to an altitude of 100 feet above the touchdown zone elevation provided all of the requirements of 91.175(l) are met. Those requirements include enhanced flight visibility, visual reference, and other operating requirements. Second, to qualify as an EFVS, the sensor image must be displayed on a Head Up Display (HUD) along with the other required flight information and flight symbology specified in 91.175(m). The EFVS imagery and other cues which are referenced to the imagery and external scene topography must be presented so they are aligned with and scaled to the external view. EVS does not meet these requirements. This becomes a big issue for fitting an EFVS in most small GA aircraft. So while the information presented on an EVS might be very similar to that of an EFVS, the lack of a HUD will prevent the EVS from using the operational credit that an EFVS would receive.

Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

Some things just go together. While we’ve largely compared these two systems independently, there is a compelling argument for combining them. Although you could operate these independent systems side by side, a more powerful solution is what’s called a Combined Vision System. “A CVS is based on a combination of different technologies that may include both real-time and computer-generated images,” Terry King, an Engineering Psychologist and FAA expert explains. “While no CVSs are currently approved for operational credit, the regulations make provision for the FAA to approve ‘for credit’ operations for future CVSs that might be certified and operationally approved for these operations.” King adds, “Depending on the operation, this may require an operator to obtain authorization to conduct these operations.”

Each system has its limitations and advantages.Used independently or in combination, these systems will improve situational awareness and safety. If your budget can justify it, Synthetic Vision and Enhanced Vision can give you those X-ray glasses you always wanted but didn’t get as a kid.

James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.

Excerpted from FAA Safety Briefing May-June 2016


minime2By Laura Duque-Arrubla, a medical doctor with postgraduate studies in Aviation Medicine, Human Factors and Aviation Safety. In the aviation field since 1988, Human Factors instructor since 1994. Follow me on facebook Living Safely with Human Error and twitter@dralaurita. Human Factors information almost every day 


4 thoughts on “Battling the Attraction of Distraction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s