Managing Flying Risk – Distraction

Distraction and interruption are unavoidable aspects of flying that require consideration and mitigation.

Many occurrences, serious incidents or accidents have been caused by apparently trivial distractions or interruptions, with examples including incorrect rigging, loss of control, tug upsets, collisions, or airspace infringements. In most cases, the attention of the pilot was diverted from the primary task of flying and navigating the aircraft.

With the right strategies and self-discipline in place, it is possible to be more aware of the dangers and reduce the risk to your flying.

Distraction v Interruption

Pilot distraction may be defined as a process, condition or activity that takes the pilot’s attention away from the task of flying the aircraft. Distractions may be transient and cause short term lapses of attention, or they might be continuous and cause an associated reduction in mental capacity. A distraction could be anything from an annoying airflow noise to a mental preoccupation with something unrelated to the flight.

Although interruption and distraction are often interchangeable, there are differences. An interruption normally requires a more specific judgement of the new task or factor and the extent to which you are required to engage with it. A distraction may also prove disruptive, but it normally lacks the necessity to consciously shift your existing focus.

An interruption may be defined as an unanticipated factor or task that develops and requires your attention. You will normally have to judge what reaction is necessary to the interruption and may have to modify or suspend an existing task or area of focus.

For example, this might be someone asking you an unrelated question while rigging, or a radio call in flight. There is normally a requirement to resume the original task after the interruption has been dealt with.

The Threat

Distractions and interruptions are a threat because they create demands on our cognitive systems that humans are not well designed to cope with. Distractions can be insidious and we are often unaware of the negative effect on our focus. Having been interrupted, we may forget to resume interrupted tasks in a timely manner or even at all. The memory for intentions, known as the ‘prospective memory’, is how we recall the necessity to complete certain tasks in the future. However, this can be unreliable if an existing task requires a high level of mental capacity.

Often an interruption is so abrupt and salient that we do not consciously encode an intention to resume the interrupted task. In addition, we are not very good at multitasking and so must normally choose whether to continue with the original task or divert to the interrupting task. After the interruption or distraction has passed, new task demands can then arise, which then further divert our attention from remembering that the original task has not been completed.

Even if we do remember to resume the original task, we may struggle to recall its exact status, making errors in completion more likely.


Effective pre-flight planning will make you more resilient to distractions and interruptions during the flight. Consider the specific threats and errors that may occur.

It is also very important to avoid distraction and interruption while conducting your pre-flight activities such as rigging and daily inspection including positive control checks. Specific guidance on safe rigging is available here.


A passenger can be a major cause of distraction and interruption, particularly if they are unfamiliar with flying in a glider. Don’t allow the passenger to distract you from diligent pre-flight preparation.

Always prioritise flying the glider safely in the correct bit of the sky over and above communicating with a passenger. Specific BGA guidance on carrying passengers and flying with other pilots is available.

Dropping the aircraft

A sudden interruption or distraction (a launch failure is an example) may cause the pilot to immediately drop concentration on flying – also known as ‘dropping the aircraft’ – either through startle effect or an instinctive reaction to the perceived issue. Regardless of the situation, always verify and stabilise the aircraft’s attitude and speed before reacting to the interrupting factor. Focusing on flying the aircraft at the correct attitude and speed will also reduce the effects of startle.

Technical Interruptions

Interactions requiring prolonged ‘head down’ inside the cockpit should be kept to a minimum and should be interspersed with verifying the aircraft’s attitude and speed and maintaining a lookout scan. At least 80% of the time should be spent looking out. Common distractions might include looking at charts or a moving map, staring at a vario, dealing with unfamiliar soaring avionics equipment or responding to notifications or alarms, such as when approaching controlled airspace.

Technology in the cockpit can be very distracting. The effects of this will be reduced by knowing how to operate your devices correctly and doing most of the configuration on the ground. Know how to set functions, such as airspace warnings or task info, in a manner most optimal for the flight. Maintaining a good knowledge of the on-board equipment will allow you to deal with technical interruptions and distractions more effectively.

Looking for other traffic

Looking out for other traffic is of course an important element of safe flying and maintaining an effective lookout should occupy most of a pilot’s time. FLARM is a very helpful electronic conspicuity technology that supports effective lookout and awareness of the greatest threat. We should ensure that we are not distracted by irrelevant information about other aircraft, whether supplied from electronic conspicuity equipment or from air traffic control.

Air traffic control

Air traffic controllers are unaware of the pressure being felt by a pilot and most have no experience of flying. ATC calls at inconvenient moments are a classic interruption in flying. Rather than allowing yourself to become distracted, if you feel the call is not critical (noting that, for example, an instruction to change direction is critical), you may choose to advise the controller to ‘standby’ until it is more convenient to respond.

Personal issues

Issues such as illness or stress represent a significant human factor in many incidents and accidents. Incidents often involve behaviour or omissions thought uncharacteristic of the individual involved – for example taking an apparently rash decision or forgetting a vital action. Normally conscientious pilots can be affected by external factors and experience a loss of cognitive performance.

Such issues may be a general distraction during the flight and have the effect of reducing mental capacity. The mind of the pilot may also drift from the task in hand, which will reduce the effectiveness of the prospective memory. A degree of self-awareness is necessary. In times of personal upset or stress it may be prudent to refrain from flying, or take mitigations such as reducing the complexity of your flights or flying with another pilot. Building in margins of free time around your flying plans will also assist with transitioning to the correct mindset and remove the distraction of time pressure.


How to react

Treat all distractions and interruptions as red flags. Having been distracted or interrupted, we need to ensure other critical tasks are not neglected while the matter is dealt with. We then need to return our attention to the original task or area of focus. This often does not happen because:

  • we forget to resume the original task; or
  • a further task now requires our attention

When you become aware of a distraction or interruption positively identify it as such and:

  • pause before responding and avoid rushing unless it is critical to do so
  • assess the priority of the interruption and what other tasks should be suspended or modified
  • make a mental note to return to the same place before the distraction or interruption, verbalising the intention may help make it stick
  • during longer interruptions, multitasking may be necessary to ensure other core tasks are not neglected, such as maintaining lookout

Managing ‘checklists’

Unless it is critical to immediately respond to an interruption, it is normally better to complete a checklist (for example the pre-flight checklist CBSIFTBEC) before diverting your attention. Doing so will reduce the likelihood of items being forgotten after your attention has been diverted. If interruption is unavoidable, return to the start of the item you were engaged in at the time of the interruption. If you can’t recall what that was, simply start again.

A common scenario is distraction in the circuit resulting in landing with the landing gear up. Carrying out the pre-landing check (for example WULF) prior to entering the circuit will significantly reduce the opportunity for an important check to be overlooked or forgotten due to distraction once things get busy in the circuit.



The information published on this page is based on extracts from CAA Safety Sense Leaflet 31.