Many skills are taught before a learner can fly an airplane or a maintenance learner can rebuild an aircraft engine. Just as practicing scales is a fundamental part of learning to play the piano, the learner does not “make music” until the ability to combine the notes in a variety of ways is acquired. For the learner pilot or technician, practicing specific skills is essential, but flying a cross-country trip or repairing a collapsed landing gear requires “putting it all together” in the right way to achieve success.

The following section looks at the challenge of learning to perform several tasks at once, dealing with distractions and interruptions, overcoming problems with fixation and inattention. It also describes the benefits of using realistic training scenarios to develop these abilities.

The Multitasking Mistake

The term multitasking is often taken for granted to mean handling several tasks at the same time. For example, when a pilot is on approach for a landing it is easy to assume that the experienced pilot is performing tasks in concurrence such as ATC communications, scanning instrumentation, and adjusting for minor deviations through the flight controls.

Aviation instructor, learning process
A pilot is required to perform several tasks at once during approaches and landings

We assume that, due to experience and practiced refinement, such skills at some point become automatic and somewhat instinctive. This belief can lead to a false sense of confidence that the routine procedure at hand is only routine and therefore does not require the added attention to question one’s assumption that there will be no deviation in that task. [Figure]

Priorities of Task Management

It is generally impossible to look at two different things at the same time. The area of focused vision (called the fovea) is only a few degrees in span and can only be directed to one location at a time. Similarly, people cannot listen to two conversations at the same time. While both conversations fall upon the ears at once, people need to devote their attention to the comprehension of one, to the exclusion of the other.
In the flight deck, a pilot is encumbered with any number competing events, tasks, and actions that each demand the attention of the pilot. While the pilot may believe that he or she is successfully managing these many tasks at the same time, in actuality, it is difficult to process more than one thought in congruence. This is especially true when one or more tasks go beyond perceived automation and require cognitive effort. To help reduce the risk of information-processing bottlenecks, it may be necessary for the pilot to employ attention switching.Continuously switching attention back and forth between two or more tasks is attention switching. For example, when Beverly uses a checklist to perform a preflight inspection, she continuously switches her attention between the checklist and the equipment she is inspecting. She looks at the checklist to retrieve the next step in the procedure, and then looks at the equipment to perform the step.

There is a danger in task switching. The individual may decide that one task is less of a priority than another and choose to postpone resolution of that task. In doing so, it is very easy to simply forget the deferred task completely. Or, should the pilot become momentarily distracted, then effort should be made to remember what task to return to and at what stage of resolution that task was left in. Even the act of managing such tasks is in and of itself a task.

Increased Workload, Diminished Quality

A common response to an overwhelming workload is to reduce the level of standards for quality and achievement. Preemptively evaluating an impending task list to then choose to reduce (or even remove) relatively unimportant tasks can be a safe and effective action against the stresses that often comes with overburdened workload. However, it is not always the case that individuals have the time (or cognitive discipline as referenced in Human Behavior) to accurately predict what tasks should instead be focused on. Sometimes the individual (especially those inexperienced or under high stress) reverts to a reaction-based response process. This can create a negative environment that may actually induce more stress as the individual continually tries to respond to each task without an overall plan.

Learning to Task Manage

Before learners are asked to perform several tasks at once, instructors should ensure that the learner has devoted enough time to study and practice such that the individual tasks can be performed reasonably well in isolation.

Inexperience with an individual task can often hinder attempts to combine it with other tasks. For example, a learner distracted by trying to interpret unfamiliar symbols on a sectional chart inadvertently deviates from assigned attitude or heading. An instructor recognizes the need to spend more time with these skills in isolation. In this case, there is nothing about the experience of controlling the aircraft that helps learners better understand chart symbols.

Distractions and Interruptions

A distraction is an unexpected event that causes the learner’s attention to be momentarily diverted. Learners need to decide whether or not a distraction warrants further attention or action on their part. Once this has been decided, the learners either turn their attention back to what they were doing, or act on the distraction.

An interruption is an unexpected event for which the learner voluntarily suspends performance of one task in order to complete a different one. Interruptions are a significant source of errors and learners need to be aware of the potential for errors caused by interruptions and develop procedures for dealing with them. A classic example is an interruption that occurs while a learner is following the steps in a written procedure or checklist. The learner puts down the checklist, deals with the interruption, and then returns to the procedure—but erroneously picks up at a later point in the procedure, omitting one or more steps.

Fixation and Inattention

Since human attention is limited in focus and highly prone to distraction, people are vulnerable to two other types of problems: fixation and inattention.

Fixation occurs when a learner becomes absorbed in performing one task to the exclusion of other tasks. Instructors see many examples of this in learner performance. Beginning instrument pilots characteristically fixate on particular instruments, attempting to control one aspect of their performance while other aspects deteriorate. Fixation on a task is often a sign that the task has not received enough practice in isolation. That is, the learner has not yet mastered the task well enough to perform it in addition to other tasks. Fixation can happen even when individual skills have been reasonably mastered, when learners have not yet learned the importance of managing their own limited attentional resources.

Inattention occurs when a learner fails to pay attention to a task that is important. Inattention is sometimes a natural by-product of fixation. Learners fixate on one task and become too busy to attend to other tasks. Inattention also happens when learners are not busy: attention may drift when they become bored or think that a task does not deserve their attention. In some cases, this type of inattention is difficult to eliminate through training and practice. For example, it is well known that humans perform poorly when placed in the role of passive monitor. Many studies have shown how performance rapidly deteriorates when humans are asked to passively monitor gauges or the progress of an automated system such as a GPS navigation computer or autopilot. Furthermore, it seems that the more reliable the system becomes, the poorer the human performance becomes at the monitoring task. The first line of defense against this type of inattention is to alert the learner to the problem, and to help develop habits that keep their attention focused.

How to Identify Fixation or Inattention Problems

One way for instructors to identify problems with fixation and inattention is to try and follow where learners look. To accomplish this, instructors can glance at a learner’s eyes to try to determine where they are looking. Learners who appear to look at one instrument for an extended period of time might have a problem with fixation. Learners whose gaze is never directed toward engine instruments might have a problem with inattention.

The technique of following learner eye movements is useful, but has limitations since looking in the same direction is not the same as “seeing” what the learner sees.