The Annual

imagesI returned home from Saigon last week with my airplane’s annual inspection nearly completed.   A backup battery was replaced, along with a set of three new tires, bearings greased, airbags and their control device replaced, and a half-broken door release handle fixed.

Owners of airplanes typically have mixed feelings over Big Brother’s requirement that we subject our airplanes to annual inspections.   The negative side of the equation is obvious: inspections cost a lot of “aviation units,” a term invented by pilots who prefer not to disclose exact dollar amounts to their spouses.

On the other hand, the benefits are equally as obvious.   The fact that the airplanes flying above us are thoroughly inspected by licensed mechanics at least once a year undoubtedly makes those flying inside them and those on the ground below them a lot safer.

When Wednesday rolled around, and my calendar reminded me that I had to fast from 9pm that night until my appointment with my physician the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence that both my airplane and my body were being checked out simultaneously.    The FAA requires that pilots over age 40 have a physical every two years, but since I turned 50 I have been getting my own physical annually.

I am not sure that my physician, who is about my age, enjoys poking into my orifices nearly as much as I enjoy looking under the cowling of my beautiful Diamond airplane.   I do hope, and am more than reasonably certain, that he knows a lot more about the internal workings of human bodies than I know about internal combustion engines.   Fortunately, just as one doesn’t need to know how a car engine works to be a good driver, one doesn’t need to know much about the inner workings of an airplane to be a skilled pilot.

Along with the annual, a pre-flight inspection is done routinely by all pilots, even those flying big birds, before every flight.   They are, in effect, largely scaled-down versions of the annual inspection.  I was once told that 85% of accidents could have been prevented by an adequate pre-flight inspection.   I don’t know if that number is accurate, but it is a very high number.

I can’t imagine that 85% of diseases could be prevented by daily self-inspections.  But even if the odds are reversed, and only 15% of diseases could be prevented by routine checks, it is probably still a good idea.   Women are encouraged to check their breasts every day, because the earlier one catches any kind of cancer the better the odds of survival.   We brush our teeth every day, not just for cosmetic purposes, but because the buildup of bacteria in the gums can lead to the heart and other vital organs.   Fair skinned lads such as myself would be wise to check their skin regularly as well, on the lookout for early signs of melanomas.

I suspect the most important tool in conducting an annual inspection that a mechanic has in her tool shed is also the least expensive tool: the checklist.   The mechanic runs through a series of items that are required to be dismantled and inspected based on the make, model and vintage of the airplane.   A good physical examination does the same thing.   The trained physician runs through a series of inspections based on a mental checklist learned through experience, in order to not miss something important.

Requiring that airplanes receive annual inspections by licensed aircraft mechanics is undoubtedly one of the reasons why flying small airplanes has gotten safer over the years.   While pilots are required to have physical exams to maintain their flying privileges, fortunately, our government does not require any such thing for the rest of us.    But maybe a peak beneath the hood every once in a while is a good idea.

Driven to Distraction

Distractibility has always been a sore spot for me. It is one of the three cardinal symptoms of attention deficit disorder (along with inattention and impulsivity), which I have been convinced is an apt description for one set of my struggles ever since I first learned about it in grad school.

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Over the years I have developed a series of “procedures” designed to manage my distractibility, little games such as “touch next,” in which I touch a random object and pursue its completion, then touch another random object and do the same. Or a game I call “subvocal lists,” in which I silently repeat a small list of tasks until each one is finished. These little things and others are designed to facilitate forward movement rather than linger too long in the stultifying effects of distraction.

Distraction can be deadly, as recent experience with cell phones have demonstrated. The horrendous train crashes in Spain and Burbank were likely cell phone related, and in an issue of Flying magazine Jay Hopkins mentioned that the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, the crash of American Flight 965 in Cali, Columbia and many other incidents and accidents were very likely also distraction-related. The Cali crash and other incidents led to the development of the “sterile cockpit” rule, which unfortunately isn’t always used. But for those of you who may not be familiar with this rule, it is designed to limit all conversations in the cockpit to only that which is essential during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. That typically translates to the first (and last) 10,000 feet above the ground. So for those of you on commercial flights, when they tell you to keep all your electronic equipment off during the takeoff and landing phases, they are doing that not because they are worried about the equipment interfering with their sensitive flight instruments, but because they want the passengers attentive in the event of an emergency during takeoff and landing. And they too, in the “front office,” are keeping things as sterile as they can.

The trio of symptoms that comprise ADD are interesting bedfellows. (The fourth symptom—hyperactivity, goes in and out of fashion as a cardinal symptom.) While the syndrome is named “attention deficit,” when you think about it, distractibility is not an attention deficit at all. In fact, it is an attention excess. Why the folks who dreamed up the name for this constellation called it what they did is a mystery to me; clearly it should have been named “attention regulation disorder,” because that is what it actually is. In fact, it is likely that the inattention found in ADD is actually a result of the underfunctioning of those parts of the brain responsible for filtering information (the reticular activating system: RAS). With a poorly functioning filter, the normal bombardment of sensations is experienced as distractibility. Impulsivity is the result of the inability to select just which information warrants acting upon and which is best filtered out.

By the way, the reason that stimulants, such as Ritalin and caffeine, appear to work so well for those with ADD is because stimulants enhance (stimulate) the RAS’ ability to filter information, resulting in an increased ability to focus on what is relevant.

I think I hear the phone ringing. I’ll be right back.