Going Sterile

“That’s right,” the prodigious 10-year-old Teddy says in J.D. Salinger’s short story of the same name, “… I met a lady, and I sort of stopped meditating.”

Sometimes life throws us curves, and distractions get ahold of us.   In the cockpit, it is easy to be distracted by the fancy bells and whistles of complex computer-driven “glass cockpits”, or the chatter of a co-pilot talking about the time he went ice fishing in Wisconsin, or even the view of the major accident on the highway below.

Distractions have been determined to be major factors in some devastating accidents, including the horrible Asiana 777 crash that killed 3 and seriously injured 49 in San Francisco in 2013.   Some years back, well before the Asiana incident, realizing the pivotal part that distraction plays in accidents in general, the FAA recommended that airlines engage in something that has become known as the “sterile cockpit rule.”   The idea behind the rule was simply to reduce distractions during the most critical phases of flight—the takeoff and landing.

Along with many other pilots of small general aviation airplanes, I have incorporated the sterile cockpit rule into my own flying, and frankly, I love it. As part of the required passenger pre-flight briefing, I simply tell any passengers with whom I might be flying that they may not talk during takeoff from the moment I invoke the rule to the moment I tell them that it is over, and that the same is true during landing.   Usually, that means that following the runup, as I taxi to takeoff position, I tell my passengers that “we’re going sterile” and then, after reaching a comfortable cruise climb and the airplane is “cleaned up” (flaps are retracted and prop and power are set) I say “ok, we’re good to talk”.  On arrival to the destination, I invoke the sterile cockpit rule when I reach pattern altitude if flying the pattern or about 3 miles out if I am flying straight in.   I don’t release the rule until after exiting the runway and contacting the ground controller in order to get my taxi clearance.

I like the rule because I can present it as such and not seem like such a jerk in the process.   What I would really like to do is to tell my chatty friends, “I need to focus now so shut the hell up,” but that would be rude, so having a rule that applies to everyone regardless of whether I like you or not is convenient.

As much as I dislike rules in general, they really can be handy.   It’s so much easier to tell someone that smoking isn’t allowed in the house than to single someone out and say sorry, you’re stinking up the place and giving me cancer (or, in my case, making it worse), you didn’t wipe your feet before you came in and you smell like dogshit so I would appreciate if you kindly take your shoes off doesn’t work as well as a rule that no one wears shoes in the house.   It’s even better when you can say it’s your partner’s rule, because blaming someone else is often a handy way of making yourself look a little more tolerant than you really are.

It is always a confrontation when I am wanting some peace and quiet and people around me are (typically unwittingly) doing everything they can to disturb it. As someone who is generally shy about confronting anyone about anything unless I am in the therapist’s chair and it’s my job, it is clear to me as I write this that what I need is a sterile cockpit rule that I can invoke whenever I damn please. But although I can imagine myself, perhaps during a hailstorm in the Sahara desert, saying something like, “Excuse me, but I would appreciate a little quiet right now while I formulate a thought,” the truth is that I am not likely going to be that much of a pilot in command outside the cockpit or the therapy office, and instead I am going to have to try another tactic.   As much as I would like to say to everyone around me, “we’re going sterile,” I am afraid anyone other than a pilot friend would look at me askance and wonder exactly which one of my imaginary friends I am addressing.

The more realistic approach is to create a sterile cockpit rule that I can enforce myself, a procedure, perhaps as I launch into my day in the morning and again as I prepare to arrive back and onto the soft, nurturing runway of sleep. For a while, years ago, I was meditating religiously for 20 minutes twice a day, and that really helped.   I created my own sterile cockpit in my office, disconnecting the phone and putting a sign on my door as if I were in a hotel room doing something enjoyable.   No one bothered me.   I am not sure, exactly, how and why I stopped.   I had already met a lady, so that couldn’t have been it.   Perhaps Salinger’s 10-year-old whiz kid could tell me, although by now he’d probably be about my age.   And he never was anything more than a figment of a writer’s imagination anyway.   Guess I’ll need to figure that one out myself.

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