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it's not a short flight, but a cross-country flight. Texting what
strikes your fancy as to what you'd like for dinner or asking if
there was any interesting mail really can wait. If you choose to
text, be aware that if an accident or incident occurs, the NTSB
will study your cellphone for calls and texts. Anything they find
that occurred during the flight will be taken into account for
accident analysis and investigation. That's a risk you take, even
if the accident occurs an hour after the text you send.
Family emergencies do arise and your spouse may text you
that your child broke her arm or that there was a bad plumbing
leak. That could initiate a string of texts that could last for a
while. If your child is home from the emergency room with a
new cast and the plumber has come and gone, then there really
is no more emergency and you can wait to land to hear the
details. That may sound harsh, but your first priority as pilot in
command is to ensure the safety of the flight and the safety of
So far, this has all been theoretical. Now let's look at an actual
accident where the NTSB cited texting as a contributing
factor to a fatal accident. The Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter
crashed following a loss of engine power as a result of fuel
exhaustion in Missouri. The pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic,
and patient were killed, and the helicopter was substantially
damaged by impact forces.
The NTSB report states, "Contributing to the accident were (1)
the pilot's distracted attention due to personal texting during
safety-critical ground and flight operations, (2) his degraded
performance due to fatigue, (3) the operator's lack of a policy
One pilot stated that he thinks it's Ok to
text anything-business or personal-if
he's in a jet, 5,000 feet over North Dakota
on a VFR day.
requiring that an operational control center specialist be
notified of abnormal fuel situations, and (4) the lack of practice
representative of an actual engine failure at cruise airspeed
in the pilot's autorotation training in the accident make and
model helicopter." Obviously, there were other factors at work
to cause this accident, but the NTSB was clear that the pilot's
texting contributed to it. You can read the full NTSB accident
Returning to the NTSB report, note that it was not simply
"personal texting" that was a contributing factor to the fatal
accident but rather "personal texting during safety-critical
ground and flight operations."
This is not an isolated incident. In 2016 a student helicopter
pilot alleged that his instructor was using FaceTime on his
phone just before their Robinson R22 went down, killing the
instructor and seriously injuring the student.
Elsewhere in the world mobile phone use was a significant
factor in a serious 'incorrect aircraft configuration' incident
involving a Jetstar Airbus A321 attempting to land in Singapore
in May 2010.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report on the
incident said that between 2,500 and 2,000 ft, the crew heard
noises associated with incoming text messages on the captain's
mobile phone. The first officer, who was the pilot flying, twice
asked the captain to set a missed approach altitude into the
flight control unit but received no response. The captain said
that he was turning off the phone and didn't hear the first
officer's request, according to the ATSB report. The crew failed
to complete the landing checklist, leaving the gear in the up
and locked position. The aircraft made a go-around and then
landed safely, but the event triggered an incident investigation.
In 2014, the FAA issued a Final Rule that restricts pilots
operating under 14 CFR Part 121 from operating any electronic
devices for personal reasons during flight operations. The
rules states that pilots are only allowed to use company-issued
devices for tasks that are directly related to the operation
of the flight, for safety-related purposes, or for company
communications. Part 135 and Part 91 operations have no such
restrictions. General aviation pilots are allowed to use cell
phone and iPads during flight.
It may not be FAA regulation, but most corporate flight
departments have a sterile cockpit procedure where pilots may
only communicate about flight issues when below 10,000 feet.
Texting in flight is considered by many flight departments to
be an activity that may be safely managed at altitude or during
non-critical phases of flight. Even so, some are implementing
bans on all Internet communication that is not directly related
to the flight, because it's all traceable.
Pilots who wish to text may develop their own personal
"sterile" texting time. That sterile time may be when within 30
nm of the destination or below cruise altitude on departure.
Setting a no-texting time is a common sense approach. You
can still text, but not during "safety-critical ground and flight
operations." But know this: If there is an accident, the NTSB will
study your phone for texting activity during the flight.
-Patricia Luebke is the managing editor of Air Facts, as well
as a Manhattan-based writer and marketing expert.
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