What is a distraction? Although definitions vary, generally, a “distraction” can be described as something that diverts full attention away from something else.

One of the simplest ways to explain distraction is driving while using a cell phone, which contributes to thousands of motor vehicle crashes, deaths, and injuries in the United States each year. For many, using a phone while driving is a hard habit to break; those little electronic devices have become integrated into every facet of life.

A gentleman was driving to work on the interstate—seemingly speeding— with one hand on the steering wheel while the thumb of his other hand was moving rapidly across the bottom portion of his cell phone’s screen. One guess as to what he was doing at that moment … texting! Using a cellphone in this manner while operating a vehicle diverts a driver’s full attention away from driving safely.

In the same way that distractions have the potential to severely compromise safe driving, they can also compro­mise flight safety—especially during critical phases of flight. In general, critical phases of flight refer to such aircraft actions as takeoff (when the vehicle leaves the ground) and landing (when the vehicle returns to the ground). The Air Force Manual 11-202, Volume 3, states that in the absence of Major Command guidance, critical phases of flight involve the following: terminal area operations, including taxi, takeoff, and landing; low-level flight; air refueling; airdrop; weapons employment; flight using night vision devices; tactical or air com­bat; formation operations (other than cruise); and all portions of any test or functional check flight or aerial demonstration.

Managing distractions calls for determining the actions required to resolve them. Working in teams can be helpful.

Like motorists, when a pilot’s attention strays from flying an aircraft, the chance of making a mistake increases. Distractions and interruptions may occur while flying due to air traffic control (ATC), head-down work, and emergencies.

Radio calls from ATC sometimes come at inconvenient times, such as at the beginning of the “before landing checklist” or while operating the flight management system (FMS). Such calls can cause flyers to lose their train of thought, requiring them to start their tasks again from the beginning.

Other types of distractions can come from the head-down work required of pilots. This type of work involves activating autopilot, setting the self-contained navigation system, and looking at the FMS for vital information. While performing these activities, a flyer’s attention, no matter how briefly, can be diverted from items on the outside of an aircraft to items on the inside.

Lastly, dealing with an unexpected situation or emergency can serve as a distraction. Emergencies can occur at any time and be major or minor. Either way, an emergency—especially during critical phases of flight—must be resolved safely.

Then how should pilots handle distractions without diverting their attention away from items related to flying?

They can utilize the lessons learned in pilot training on how to aviate, navigate, and communicate. Another effective approach is to manage any distractions.

Managing distractions calls for determining the actions required to resolve them. Working in teams can be helpful. For example, on a Mobility Air Force aircraft, numerous crew members are present to discuss and help with potential solutions. Having backup when distractions result in incidents is both supportive and encouraging. One crew member can fly the aircraft as another reads a checklist or answers a radio call. There is also the sterile cockpit rule, which prohibits the performance of nonessential duties during critical phases of flight to help alleviate any interruptions to flying.

Why all the managing? Managing distractions is essential in safely taking off or starting the mission as well as safely landing or ending a mission.

There is a reckoning point in dealing with distractions: can the crew member gain control of it or not? Completing head-down work, such as checklists, when a pilot is least task-saturated is an example of gaining and exercising control over possible distractions. Other examples of control include honoring the sterile cockpit rule and not becoming complacent with experience. Sometimes, because a crew has repeatedly performed the same task, comfortability kicks in; however, rules and processes must always be followed.

The same process applies to driving. Always follow the rules of the road for safe driving. Most U.S. states have some form of hands-free driving regulations that require drivers not to hold or handle their cell phones while operating a vehicle. Therefore, phone calls are best answered and ended via a vehicle’s hands-free system in these states. Some systems can also receive and read text messages aloud. When vehicles are not equipped with such systems, some drivers safely pull over and park their cars to answer phone calls and read email and text messages. Yes, pulling over and stopping can lengthen travel times, but these measures can help to ensure safety by allowing the driver to exercise control over distractions. Hopefully, no other drivers are speeding on the interstate with their faces buried in their cell phones.