Once upon a time I stumbled on a viral VCR tape (yes, I really am that old). It was of a lecture given by a certain Navy officer, a flight surgeon, Captain Frank Dully,  to fighter squadrons. The title of the lecture? “Sex and the Naval aviator.”  Maybe you know it?

In today’s climate the lecturer would most likely find himself in front of whatever board in the Pentagon resembles corporate human resources, but in those days the colorful language and irreverent references were designed to capture the attention of the fine young men (yes, only young men in those days) in the room and drive home the message that distraction in the the cockpit kills. Seriously, that was the whole message. Well, not quite.

Dully suggested a method for eliminating the distractions of  family life. He called it “compartmentalization,” and it is a technique of mentally boxing up everything unrelated to aviation in your brain and filing it away in a sealed “compartment.” That way your sterile cockpit starts at the airport, or wherever you do your final weather check and make your go / no-go decision regarding the flight. The rule persists through your preflight, cockpit checks, start-up, run-up and takeoff—right through the entire flight,  in fact.

Think about it. If you eliminate all distractions (yes, that means cellphones and internet connected devices keyed to apps not providing you with aviation information directly related to the flight) you increase the amount of brain-power available to you for processing the flight by, well, let’s just say logarithmically.  When you exercise this kind of discipline I can tell you from experience that the sensation is cleansing, and the flight? Honestly, it feels easier, even when it involves a complicated IFR clearance, diversions and an approach through the clouds. Humans are not natural multitaskers and just aviating, navigating and finally, communicating is enough to keep the gray matter in your frontal lobe lit up like the Vegas strip.

Sure, none of this information is new, however, as we roll into the holiday season fresh off a national election that was extremely polarizing and fraught with strife I feel it is my duty as a pilot and flight instructor to remind all of my fellow aviators heading out to visit family and friends that the cockpit is no place for political discussions, be they about national, local, or inter-familial personalities. Don’t cache the daily news on your iPad behind your JeppView app or Foreflight app for reading and discussion during cruise, don’t load up your phone with your favorite protest music (no matter how good it feels to scream the lyrics out loud in an empty cockpit). Don’t let your brain start to swirl around any external worries, from why the kids wouldn’t eat Aunt Ella’s french toast to how the offensive line of your favorite team is going to hold up against the best defense in the league tomorrow.

Focus on the flight and only the flight. Tell your passengers and co-pilot ahead of time that you are not ignoring them, rather you are adhering to a strict sterile cockpit protocol for the sake of their safety (you don’t need to tell them it is good for you, too). Trust me, the flight will be more relaxing, and you will find your skills ratcheting up a notch or two on the proficiency meter by mere focus alone. And that’s a really nice feeling.

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.