The pilot of a crop duster that plowed into a field was concentrating on tasks inside the aircraft’s cockpit rather than looking out the windows when he experienced a loss of situational awareness and crashed.
This excerpt from a Transportation Safety Board report highlights the consequences of becoming distracted by losing situational awareness – knowing what is going on around you. The aircraft was written off, but fortunately, the pilot recovered from his injuries sustained in the accident and returned to flying. Many can relate to such circumstances either through first- or second-hand experience.
The Golden Rule
A pilot’s number one priority is maintaining positive control and not hitting the ground. This ‘golden rule’ is sound advice for aviation in general, but even more so in the challenging world of ag aviation, where you are often operating at the outer fringes of the flight envelope at a very low level.
Distracted flying is any activity that diverts attention from flying, and there are a lot of them. Talking or texting on your cellphone, eating and drinking, checking out a work order – the list goes on and on. All take your attention away from your primary responsibility of ensuring positive control of the aircraft.
With an application speed of 125 mph, you cover 183 feet per second. At a standard boom height of 8-10 feet, the landscape is zipping by at a pretty good clip, along with dangers such as telephone poles and wires, high tension towers, trees, buildings, etc., coming your way in a hurry. Even for a second or two, any distraction can make for a bad day at the office. You cannot fly safely unless the task has your full attention.
In addition to many potential distractions, aviation can throw some additional monkey wrenches into the action through a wide assortment of visual and sensory illusions, vestibular and otherwise. Add to that the always present danger of fatigue affecting a pilot’s judgment, and you have a situation that demands your full and undivided attention.
While the basic technique behind each application is straightforward – flying back and forth across a field following the swath guidance – numerous other tasks vie for your attention. Ensuring you are at the correct location. Checking the amount remaining in the hopper, checking and adjusting the correct flow rate, watching for potential hazards, ensuring you are not drifting materials into other fields. You can get into “task saturation” pretty quickly, something especially risky when fatigued.
The Paper War
If you need to do something that requires more than a glance during an application, put your paperwork – whether actual paper or electronic – away until you are at a safe altitude and airspeed. Trying to check a work order or other item while wallowing around near max gross is not fun at any time, let alone near the ground. And by a safe altitude, that means not only high enough to ensure you leave a large margin of safety from accidental contact with the ground but high enough that towers and other structures do not come into play. And never, but never, answer or talk on the radio or your cellphone unless you are at a safe altitude or on the ground and parked.
As is often said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That starts with spending the time and effort required to make all parts of your operation seamless. Make your work order a model of simplicity and clarity so that the pilot receives only required information in an easy-to-read format. In addition to the GPS coordinates of the field, ensure your work order has sufficient information to 100% confirm you are at the right field at the right time. Google Earth and other geo programs make that an easy chore these days, with photos of the area being treated that can be printed out, which will help a great deal when you have accidentally typed in the wrong GPS coordinates.
Keep your cockpit well organized, separating completed work orders from future ones. A simple file folder with several sections can help you, where you can separate pending work orders from those completed.
Know your navigation and application gear cold! Having a refresher course while circling a field low level is a sure recipe for disaster. The off-season is a great time to study aircraft and flow control systems until they are second nature.
The same goes when transitioning to a new aircraft. Take the time to study the Pilot’s Flight Manual and give yourself lots of time to fly the new aircraft empty and with various water loads. When day one of the new spray season comes, you will feel very comfortable in the cockpit and aren’t searching for that darn airspeed indicator, flap lever, or other control or instrument.
Developing good habits and procedures is part of a long chain of events that can help you steer clear of distractions. Just keep in mind the best procedures are useless if they are not followed. I can personally vouch that a lapse in following normal procedures – like not securing fuel or oil caps or failure to remove all safety flags – can make for a most interesting situation you want to avoid. It is here that consistently doing things prevents many problems from startup to shutdown.
For pilots just entering the very satisfying world of ag aviation, developing and following good work habits will set the stage for a long and productive career. The same also applies to experienced pilots where reviewing all phases of an operation to ensure consistency will always pay great dividends.
Part and parcel of ag flying is that we are implicitly accepting some level of risk by its very nature. The key to safe and successful operations is knowing that risk can be mitigated through various measures. A large part of that process involves keeping distractions to an absolute minimum. This is especially true for single-seat aircraft when the pilot gets distracted. You then have to ask, who’s doing the flying? We all know the answer to that one.