Acknowledgements: FAA Safety Team General Aviation Joint Steering Committee 

 (Ed. Note: I know this advice is oft-repeated, but the crash example below indicates that frequent reminders may yet be required!)

 From the earliest days of flight training, pilots are taught an important set of priorities which should follow them through their entire flying career: 


 AVIATE: The top priority - That means fly the airplane by using the flight controls and flight instruments to direct the airplane’s attitude, airspeed, and altitude 

NAVIGATE: Figure out where you are and where you’re going

COMMUNICATE: As appropriate, by talking to ATC or someone else outside the airplane 

 But remember, it doesn’t matter if we’re navigating and communicating perfectly if we lose control of the aircraft and crash. A-N-C seems simple to follow, but it’s easy to forget when you get busy or distracted in the cockpit 


An example of failure to aviate is the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in 1972. The entire crew was focussed on the malfunction of a landing gear position indicator light. No one was left to keep the plane in the air, as it headed towards a shallow descent into the Florida Everglades. Four professional aviators, any one of whom could have detected the descent, were so focussed on a non-critical task that they failed to detect and arrest the descent, resulting in 99 fatalities. They failed to fly the aircraft first.


Distractions can be deadly in an emergency situation and can rob your focus from more critical items or tasks. NTSB accident data suggests that pilots who are distracted by less essential tasks can lose control of their aircraft and crash. 

 In light of this pilots are reminded to maintain aircraft control at all times. This may mean a delay in responding to ATC communications and passenger requests, or not responding at all unless positive aircraft control can be maintained throughout. In other words, Fly the Aircraft First

 If you have passengers aboard, set expectations before the flight

·      Take some time to explain your role and theirs, in addition to the standard seatbelts, exits, and emergency equipment brief 

·      Insist on a sterile cockpit – no conversation during critical times which is not directly related to the safety of the flight 

·      Give your passengers a job to do such as scanning for traffic or calling out altitudes 

 When your workload is increasing, use the autopilot if you have one. (A caveat: don’t engage altitude hold if you’re in significant turbulence. Basic wing levelling is what you want. That way the autopilot won’t overstress the airplane or disengage while trying to maintain altitude). Make sure you’re proficient in operations with and without autopilot. 


Staying ahead of the airplane is another good way to stave off distractions. That way, if something comes up during a flight, you’ll have more time to assess its impact on safety and determine an appropriate course of action. 


·      Know your performance numbers and best power-off glide speed for the aircraft and environment you’re going to fly in 

·      Have a good weather brief and get updates along the route. Have survival gear on board and know how to use it 


·      Plan and brief each take-off, approach, and landing to include climb and descent expectations, go/no-go points, and escape routes 

·      File a flight plan and request flight following 

·      Plan your route with alternate landing areas in mind, or take a longer route with alternatives for off-airport landings. Keep within gliding distance of suitable landing areas as much as possible 


·      Practice emergency procedures, short and soft field take-offs and landings, and power off approaches and landings at your expected mission weight 

·      And don’t forget to seek regular proficiency training with your flight instructor 



Tony Birth