Gadgets & Distractions

Recent years have seen numerous gadgets in glider cockpits displaying information used by glider pilots, especially when flying cross country, badges and contest flights.

As the gadgets increased in apparent usefulness, I purchased my first PDA and loaded one of the popular programs. The information available was overwhelming, and I found myself head-down and locked, staring at the screen.

On one flight, I told my co-pilot to fly, while I played with the PDA. After awhile, he said, "Tom, you better take the controls."

I looked up and saw miles and miles of empty farm land over south-central Florida. We were very low, but found a thermal and climbed up.

That evening, I made a list of things I "need" to know at any one time, and another list of "interesting" items, not really necessary, but satisfying to my curious mind.

Thinking about these two lists, I realized "interesting" items were not essential to flight, and distracted me from "essential" items. The interesting items were causing me to perform less efficiently, and less safely than when I concentrated on the essential, important items.

I removed the PDA.

A few years later, improvements to the available programs came along, so I purchased a newer, better PDA, loaded the latest and greatest program, and once again found the system to be very distracting and a detriment to my overall performance, as well as my safety.

(Want a slightly used PDA?)

Recent mid-air accidents raise my concerns about the safety issues of using the new gadgetry. Are these gadgets causing an increase in midair collisions and near misses?

One of my recent newsletters pointed out how the human eye only focuses on a very small area. Pick some distant object and cover it with with your outstretched thumb. The width of your thumb is the area your eye can see an object in sharp focus.

Collision avoidance requires us to scan the sky, concentrating mostly on the horizon where other aircraft are at our exact altitude (notwithstanding ascending/descending aircraft.) Your peripheral vision is good at detecting moving objects, but not those coming from your side directly towards you. (No relative motion.)

Midair collisions and near misses have a greater chance of occurring before starting a task, and again, while making final glide decisions when pilots are experiencing increased workload. Distractions from collision avoidance procedures are a serious consequence of any device requiring a pilot's head down attention – especially if the distraction involves any time period, no matter how brief.