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#121 The Sterile Cockpit

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In the last few years, the Acme Flying School has continued to encourage the squelching of pilot improvement by coming up with “The Sterile Cockpit”.  Naturally, this concept began with the airline industry and has crept into federal aviation regulations.  Seems like

_DSC2187 by Bert
“The concept of the “Sterile Cockpit” originated with the airlines.” (Photo by Bert Garrison of First Officer Mike Newby)

a pretty good idea when it is first considered.  The concept is simple.  Passengers are told to shut up and any conversation or activity not related to the takeoff or landing is not permitted while the aircraft is taking off, landing or involved in any “critical phase” of flight.  This sterility of the cockpit environment is designed to enable the pilot to concentrate on more demanding tasks without any distractions.

But it seems to me that this may be one more example of protecting modern pilots from their own shortcomings rather than increasing their skills.  I recently performed a little test and put together a video of it which will appear on the Tailwheeler’s Journal.  Called “Distractions”, the video features my students, both primary and highly rated, landing the Cessna 140 while being distracted by my antics.  One of my primaries is even blinded by a sunshade just as she is flaring.  She bats the shade away from her face with total aplomb and the landing is completed pretty well. A flight instructor is shown on the approach, stating “if you’re trying to distract me, it’s not going to work”, just as I clapped a motion picture slate on his nose.  His landing was pulled off pretty well.

Brian w MX15
With the Wescam 182 equipped with a sensor for the Navy contract.

When I flew for L3 Wescam, I was faced with distractions of a new intensity.  Seated next to a camera operator and equipped with a small screen in front of me, I was expected to fly the plane and keep the gear out of the shot, while communicating with ATC, listening to traffic and my operator, not to mention proper navigation of the aircraft.  I think it was some of the best training I ever had.

Later, I would find that as a glider pilot

Flying the Sunriver Soaring 2-32 required a constant patter… sort of like being a pilot, tour guide and flight instructor all rolled up in one. No “sterile cockpit” here.

conducting aerial tours, I’d have to deal with the landing and takeoff of that glider, preparing for possible emergencies while simultaneously describing the operation being undertaken and functioning as a tour pilot. I don’t believe that such division of attention was asking too much and I certainly don’t think it would have been appropriate to insist on a “sterile cockpit” during takeoffs and landings. More importantly, I don’t believe that my passengers were ever endangered by their pilot’s attention to several details at the same time.

My point is that, instead of protecting air crews from distractions, perhaps we should be better preparing them to deal with those distractions.

Now, before you grab your pitchforks and light your torches, let me say that I’m not talking about airliners.  I’m talking about general aviation pilots.  And I’m not asking that an undertrained pilot undertake an activity that he can’t handle.  I am saying that such a pilot ought to be trained to handle common distractions without falling apart.  If such a pilot really must have a sterile cockpit in order to concentrate on that incredibly difficult landing or takeoff, maybe we ought to design some training scenarios which will help that pilot to deal with the common distractions that will arise.  After all, didn’t aviators invent “multi-tasking”?

We don’t have a lot of primary students here at Tailwheel Town.  But the ones we do are normally familiarized with cockpit distractions, landing in a turn, dead stick landings and even formation flight BEFORE they solo.  I don’t have all the answers when it comes to teaching flight.  But I do have THAT one!

Happy (distracted) Swooping!