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#121 The Sterile Cockpit

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!


6 comments to #121 The Sterile Cockpit

  • Marty Winger

    Well, here it goes (!) to this subject Brian,

    Ever try to give a “heavy driver” a checkout in a taildragger? Talk about distractions, get them to move their feet and convince them what those pedals on the floor are for…oh yeah, how about trying to get them in a little crosswind and to demonstrate a forward slip, airspeed, and pitch control at the same time, and while all that is happening hold it to the runway, WOW!


    • brian

      I guess that it’s all really the same thing, isn’t it, Marty? It’s really about distractions and multi-tasking and the more well-trained and practiced a pilot is, the better equipped to deal with it. Thanks for the input.

  • On final for a 3 point landing in a C140 you could do just about anything and it won’t matter a bit. And nothing is going to stop my hollering when it goes well.

  • Dee Ann

    And … try telling some 9 and 10 year-old Young Eagles riders “no talking” when on approach to the airport. It’s bad enough just getting them to scream softly. Thank goodness for that intercom switch.

  • Pete

    Happy 2015 Brian,

    The concept of a ‘sterile cockpit’ is to negate any conversation that is not relevant to the task. Your article includes conversations that could be deemed task relevant and distractions that could present themselves in an impromptu manner.

    The idea of the rule is to give sufficient capacity to deal with all the necessary actions and conversations that you mention by removing non essential chit chat etc, that is not at all related to the operating environment.

    Just my opinion as a heavy driver.

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