If you’re a pilot, you’ve probably been there. A busy flight suddenly gets too busy for you to keep up with. At first it’s annoying, but at some point it can become a crisis, or worse.
Task saturation happens in many arenas. By definition, it’s the mental bind we find ourselves in when we have too much to do without the time, skills or resources to pull it off. The phenomenon is nothing new, but experts believe that the very technologies, especially smartphones, that are supposed to make our lives easier are actually contributing to a rise in the incidence of task saturation, which is seldom that big a deal. In an office setting, you might forget to include an attachment in an email. At home, you might be a few minutes late to pick up the kids after soccer practice. But in the cockpit of an airplane or at the operating table, task saturation is potentially lethal.
According the National Business Aviation Association, which ranks task saturation as one of its top 10 safety concerns, the incidence of pilot overload is on the rise. Eric Barfield, chair of the NBAA’s Safety Committee, said the rise is at least in part due to pilots being asked to do more with less. For the NBAA, that generally means corporate pilots flying as a crew of two. But private flyers in many ways face a more challenging environment, as they don’t have a second-in-command to offload tasks to, and they’re flying airplanes that generally don’t offer as much automation assistance as bizjets do.
I’m guessing that just about every one of you has experienced task saturation in flight. If you fly a lot, or maybe even more if you don’t fly quite enough, chances are good that you’ve been in a situation where things started happening a little too fast for comfort. Like, when while flying IFR, you get an unexpected flurry of directions from a busy controller, or, when motoring along under VFR conditions, you encounter a cloud deck exactly where you don’t want it to be while trying to get the information for landing at some strip you’re having a hard time finding.
“Instead of clarifying that last strange instruction, the controller keeps them coming, two or three simultaneously while you were in the middle of straightening out that strange thing the autopilot just did.”
Sometimes in situations like this, the rush doesn’t get resolved. It gets worse. Maybe instead of clarifying that last strange instruction, the controller keeps them coming, two or three simultaneously while you were in the middle of straightening out that strange thing the autopilot just did. And what exactly did he say? As you’re trying to sort that out, he gives you a couple more directions, none of which you completely understood. And where are you now? And what exactly is that blasted autopilot doing and why?
At that point, you’re behind the power curve, and in many cases, the controller, instead of figuring that out, instead piles on, admonishing you for not doing what they just directed you to do fast enough or precisely enough, and you need to figure that out in addition to what the last two of the three instructions were. And you’re feeling like a jerk for getting called out on frequency, and you wonder what the other pilots are thinking of you, and as you reflect on what a crappy day you’re having, you find yourself getting even farther behind.
You get mad, clench the yoke tightly and grumble a few choice expletives under your breath, but you realize you don’t have time to get mad. You don’t even have time to think about not getting mad. You are, in fact, barely hanging on.
And then the unthinkable happens. As you struggle under the deluge of too much to process with even more on its way as the controller’s voice crackles into your headset with yet another admonishment, your brain does what brains do under such circumstances. It does what brains do no matter how smart you are, no matter how clever, how experienced or how diligent. Your brain starts shutting down. Locking up. You stop thinking. You just sit there, gazing forward blankly.
And there you are. In a machine thousands of feet in the air speeding along, a hunk of metal with no one at home, at least temporarily. If you’re in IMC, then the risk factor gets ratcheted way up, especially if you’re hand flying. Loss of control while IMC is an accident type that almost always has a fatal outcome for all aboard.
In most cases, thankfully, the situation sorts itself out. You figure out the problem, get a brief respite from the rush of new tasks, and you find yourself back in control of the situation. You take a deep breath and vow to never let such a thing happen again.
Awareness and Acceptance
Tragically, in other cases, it doesn’t work out at all. As is the case with many accident causes, task saturation is part of a matrix of causal factors. Note that I use the term “matrix” instead of “chain.” The concept of an accident chain is this: One small problem leads to another and yet another until the knotted ball of errors can no longer be unraveled and ends in a crash.
The concept leaves out one really important factor, though, that of the human machine. It assumes that all pilots are operating at an optimum level, which it’s probably fair to say is the exception rather than the rule. By looking at mishaps as a matrix of interdependent factors, we can get a better idea of how accidents really happen, and the answer usually is, it’s complicated.
The goal, then, is to remove task saturation from that accident web, or, if that’s not possible, then to cut down on its negative effects. To do that, you need to prevent it from happening. And if you can’t do that, you really need to get things in check as soon as possible after you realize your mental state is sliding toward that place where the brain gets overclocked and just stops processing.
The first thing to understand is that such a shutdown is a totally natural thing. And it’s all too common. If the NBAA has identified it as a top concern for its pro pilots, you can bet it’s an even bigger common problem for pilots like us who almost always fly single-pilot operations.
And it’s all too common a foe, too. It’s understood in the flight-training world that an instructor or examiner can break down even the best pilots. In flight simulators, an instructor bent on mischief will often do this by programming in multiple systems failures. You’ll find yourself flying a complicated approach with the yaw damper out when the weather goes low. Is it at minimums, or will you need to fly the missed? And why is the controller not responding to your calls? What, and engine failure? In such situations, with cascading systems failures, some of them not easily understood, it takes near-superhuman peace of mind to keep from crashing, never mind busting the check ride. And any skilled sim instructor can do it to any pilot. Some aviators just require a couple more simultaneous failures than others.
This is why there are rules in place that limit the number of failures the guy in the right seat or at the instructor’s console can dole out on a check ride. That said, it still happens. The point is, pilots are human, and given enough distress and overload, every human pilot’s brain will do what human brains do. They will lock up.
When I started brainstorming this piece, I looked back at times when I’ve been task-saturated, and the problem wasn’t in coming up with an instance, but with deciding which two or three to discuss of the dozen or so, many of them in the relative safety of the training environment, that sprang to mind. I know that I’m not the only one who’s found himself mentally saturated, but I’m guessing that there’s a lot of reluctance on the part of pilots to admit that they’ve been through it themselves.
Preventing B-LOC (Brain Lock)
At the risk of sounding like a Three Stooges gag—does it hurt when I do this?—the very best way to avoid task saturation is to avoid getting task-saturated. That’s easier said than done. In many cases, it sneaks up on you while you’re busy trying to solve problems or things that are perceived as problems, and very often the task that captures too much attention and leads to brain lock isn’t really a problem at all, or it’s the least critical item on a too long and still growing list.
Among the most common signs that, as Tom Petty warned, you’re heading for a fall, are the following:
▷ Escalating anxiety: Be aware of how you’re feeling. If as you’re dealing with an increasing cockpit load your pulse quickens, the voice inside your head starts sounding tense, and your muscles begin to tense up, you’re seeing signs that you’re starting to get overloaded.
▷ You find yourself focused on one task for what feels like slightly or way too long a period of time.
▷ You feel as though there’s something important that’s not getting done, though you might not be able to put your finger on just what that neglected task is.
▷ The controller starts getting snippy with you. Admittedly, sometimes that’s a sign that it’s the controller and not you is the one who needs a hug.
What To Do
It might have already occurred to you that there’s a useful mnemonic for responding to overload—aviate, navigate, communicate. It’s left unsaid, but the saying is a priority list. These are the things you need to do and this is the order you need to do them in, it suggests. Aviate first, navigate second, and communicate when you have things under control.
The implication is that you need to aviate first because the worst outcome is losing control and crashing. You could extend this to include staying on altitude and airspeed. A companion saying applies here. “Fly the airplane.” It can happen, but it’s a rare mishap when a flight comes to harm with the airplane under control the whole time.
The second directive, “navigate,” is important because you don’t want to get lost or off-course, especially if ATC is looking over your shoulder. Also, if you’re on course and on altitude, you’re presumably not going to run into an immovable object, like the planet Earth, while you’re sorting out your in-cockpit troubles.
The third and last in the list is “communicate.” The implication is that no one ever crashed because they didn’t key the mic, while plenty of pilots have bought the farm because they were more concerned with letting ATC know their intentions than with keeping out of the trees.
“While ‘aviate, navigate, communicate’ is a great start, it oversimplifies the nature of many task-saturation events.”
While “aviate, navigate, communicate” is a great start, it oversimplifies the nature of many task-saturation events. Often, the crisis comes with the airplane on autopilot or with the airplane under good control. IFR-rated pilots are particularly good at dividing their attention because being able to hand-fly in instrument conditions while attending to all the tasks related to an instrument flight is like rubbing two heads while patting a dozen bellies, which is one of the reasons why so many find the skill so rewarding.
As gratifying as hand flying can be, when things start getting overloaded, the first thing to do in many cases is turn on the autopilot. Make sure you have your heading bug where it needs to be and the altitude selector set to where you want to be whether that’s your current altitude or the one to which you’re climbing or descending.
Once you’ve got things under control, aviating-wise, the next thing you need to do is figure out which of the four or five things that are overloading you need to be dealt with, and you can’t do that until you get rid of the thing that’s locking your brain up.
Identifying that one is easy. It’s all you can think about! So, fix it. If you were frantic that the autopilot is doing something you didn’t ask it to or didn’t know you’d asked it to, the key is getting it to stop that. One great way to do that is to hit “heading,” hit “alt” and let the airplane fly straight and level for a while as you sort things out. In the Cirrus line of aircraft and in a growing number of other Garmin- and Avidyne-equipped planes, there’s a little button on the autopilot that will get you immediately going straight and level. It’s a great place to start, especially if keeping the airplane level is at issue.
If you don’t fly a single-button straight and level-equipped airplane, you can still get things back to center in a few pushes. Push “Hdg” (or “nav” if you realized the autopilot is following the heading bug instead of the flight plan), “alt” and then monitor the progress closely until you’re sure the intervention has worked.
Sometimes turning off the autopilot is the solution. If it’s doing something you’re not telling it to do, then make it stop. Turn it off and hand fly. You’d be surprised at how often that can lower the stress level in the cockpit.
If your problem is with the radios, most typically not hearing ATC or them not hearing you, have a quick mental checklist of things to look into. Plugs, volume on the radio, correct frequency selected on the correct radio, verify the audio panel selector, and even—and this has happened to more pilots than you’d believe—make sure you’re pushing the push to talk button instead of another button on the yoke grip. All of these steps can be accomplished in a matter of a few seconds.
Ask For Help
Using the autopilot is a good example of one key to emerging in one piece from a task-saturation situation: asking for help. In this case, you’re asking the autopilot for help. In other cases, you need to ask ATC for help, and this is where it can get dicey, both from a psychological and flight management perspective.
The last thing that any of us wants to do is admit we don’t know how to do something and then ask for help. And, unfortunately, and I’m just being realistic here, how much help you get from ATC and what their attitude is about your need for assistance will vary greatly from controller to controller. Still, in most cases, it’s a gamble you might have to take.
If you’re flying with a pilot-rated friend you have confidence in, you can always ask that person for help. Sometimes that can mean just holding an altitude and heading. Other times, it can consist of them handling the radio calls while you fly the airplane. Or they might be able to help you troubleshoot a problem while you focus more on the flying.
The thing you need to remember is that at some point your crisis is important enough that the risk of getting a nasty reply from a controller or even that dreaded request from the tower to make a call once you land is worth it. Remember, you’ve always got that get-out-of-jail-free card at your disposal. The Aviation Safety Reporting System program, designed to create a safe dialogue space for pilots to share problems they had without risk of getting the book thrown at them, is a godsend. I’ve filed a report on three occasions over the past 25 years, and while nothing ever came of any of the incidents, filing the report gave me at least a little more peace of mind post-incident.
I once asked a controller for help when I was a new IFR pilot. I was heading to Bridgeport’s Sikorsky Memorial (KBDR) in a steam-gauge airplane in the bouncy soup and with an autopilot that was having trouble holding a steady altitude. Believe me, the autopilot was something that would have come in handy, had it been working correctly. As it was, holding a heading was some help.
So when the controller asked me to fly to an intersection defined by two VOR radials, neither of which I was currently navigating to, I knew that overloaded as I was in keeping the airplane under control, the last thing I needed was to fiddle with both nav radios trying to set up the course to the fix. So I asked him for a vector to the fix. He was taken aback at first, but he soon figured out, maybe by the sound of my voice, that I was overloaded and needed help. With a certain air of annoyance in his voice, he gave me vectors to the point, and by the time he handed me off to the tower, all was forgiven. I guess he’d had enough time to realize that in the grand scheme of things, we both did what was right and no metal was bent or lives lost. I didn’t even bust an altitude. The experience taught me an important lesson, which is, again, ask for help when you need to.
It’s critical to understand that when your brain gets overloaded and starts to shut down, you need to pay attention and act immediately by shedding workload and attending to the most serious of your problems, which you need to remember is this: keeping the airplane under control at all times until you can sort out the problem. Failing to do so could be the last mistake you ever make. Getting chided by the FAA certainly won’t be the end of your life, even if it feels like it at the time.
Task Saturation Checklist
1. Keep the airplane under control (autopilot, primary instruments, co-pilot).
2. Keep the plane on course and altitude, if possible.
3. Establish emotional equilibrium. (Breathe)
4. Identify the nature of the problem. (What did you hyper-focus on?)
5. Identify the severity of the problem. (Can you ignore it altogether, or is it an immediate or near-term risk?)
6. Identify an easy, sufficient remedy, if possible. (Example: No comm? Use the other radio, change comm channels, double-check frequencies and volume control.)
7. If unable to reestablish composure, ask for help immediately.
8. If loss of control is a threat, make maintaining control of the airplane your only concern.
9. Worry about FAA consequences later.