As Comair flight 5191 pulled out onto the runway, the eastern horizon was just starting to lighten – sunrise was still an hour away. The control tower cleared the plane for takeoff. Three minutes later, the plane broke apart and 49 people lost their lives. The ensuing investigation quickly uncovered the chain of events that led to disaster that fateful morning. Their findings have critical importance for you and me.
The Mythical Ideal – Multitasking Like Crazy
We’re conditioned to think of multitasking as a good thing and rapidly increasing technology fosters this kind of behavior because it promotes multiple sources of input at the same time. We see behind the scenes interviews where the individual being interviewed is constantly juggling multiple tasks – meetings, email, facebooking, tweeting, texting, phone calls, etc. – all with apparent ease. It’s as if by doing all sorts of things at the same time, productivity is increased, but that is just a myth – one that can have disastrous consequences.
Loss of Focus
Although it’s possible to do multiple things at the same time, there are trade-offs. The brain can’t really focus on two different sources of input at the same time. Instead of each source of input getting full attention, each gets partial attention.
For example, driving a car and talking on the phone both use the same part of the brain to process incoming information and respond. What happens is that one task becomes the primary object of focus and the other task becomes secondary. For driving while on the phone, this usually means that instead of the driver’s attention being focused on the road, it’s focused on listening and responding to the phone conversation – the task of driving and responding to other drivers and road conditions becomes secondary.
When attention is divided between multiple tasks, mistakes increase. In fact a 2006 study found that drivers talking on cell phones were more likely to be involved in rear-end collisions than intoxicated drivers.
This connection between divided attention and increased mistakes is the reason behind the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA)“Sterile Cockpit Rule.” The rule prohibits any non-essential tasks, including chit chat, during any of the critical phases of flight. When the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the Comair accident, it was the pilot’s non-pertinent conversation that was cited as a contributing factor in the accident. In short they were multitasking when they should have been completely focused on the safe takeoff of the airplane.
When attention is divided, details get less attention and as a result, some details get missed. Comair flight 5191 was cleared to takeoff from Runway 22 which was 7,003 feet long. However, the pilot missed this detail and instead pulled the plane out onto Runway 26 – a secondary runway that was only 3,500 feet long. Departing from a runway that was too short meant that the airplane couldn’t get up to takeoff speed before it ran out of runway.
Multitasking involves tradeoffs. Performing multiple tasks simultaneously means that each task gets less attention. While this may be OK for some tasks like watching television and facebooking – make sure that when it comes to the critically important tasks, your attention is undivided.