It was revealed yesterday that a pilot of a medical helicopter that crashed in Missouri in 2011 had been actively texting during the flight. The crash killed all 4 people on board, including a patient. Bloomberg News is reporting that the National Transportation Safety Board has documented seven texts sent or received by the pilot during the flight.
This is apparently the first documented case of such a distraction possibly leading to a fatal commercial air crash
The NTSB will issue it’s final report today, and there are other factors that will no doubt be included in their final determination. The pilot is said to have told people that day that he did not sleep well, and in fact forgot to fill the helicopter with fuel before leaving to pick up a patient at a hospital.While on that stop he discussed with hospital personnel where he might be able to find fuel. The aircraft crashed while he was trying to get to Midwest National Air Center Airport in Mosby.
The company which operated the service, called LifeNet, did have rules in place that prohibited pilots from using electronic communication devices while in flight. They likely also had something about making sure there was gas in the tank as well, but I do not know for sure.
We are certainly aware that texting while driving is a dangerous yet common phenomena. We also know of fatal train accidents attributed to it. Still, texting while flying certainly raises the bar a bit. I am sure it is more common than we would like to believe, particularly in low level aircraft like helicopters. I for one would prefer my pilots stay focused on the task at hand – like noting how much fuel is onboard before we leave the ground (By the way: Fuel starvation is, I believe, the number one cause of general aviation air crashes).
They say that flying is hours of endless boredom interrupted with occasional seconds of shear terror. While we continue to struggle with the advances of technology and our overinflated sense of competence when it comes to multi-tasking, I would hope that other pilots learn from this scenario. We prefer they fiddle away the boredom by paying attention to their aircraft and the space around them.
I will certainly keep this in mind this coming summer. I have signed up for a helicopter tour of Austin, TX during the AASCIF 2013 conference in July, and we will want to make sure it is both safe and accident free. I will be sure to text the pilot during the flight asking if we have enough fuel. I am sure everyone on board will appreciate the effort.