Could texting distraction have led to a series of disastrous mistakes?
As you may have heard by now, the has asked the to prohibit the use of portable electronic devices (PED) — read smart phones, tablets, etc. — for non operational use by crewmembers at their flight deck duty stations while the aircraft is being operated. This would include FAR Part 135 and 91 Subpart K operations.
The Safety Board also wants Part 121, 135 and 91 Subpart K operators to incorporate into their initial and recurrent pilot training programs and manuals “information on the detrimental effects that distraction due to the nonoperational use of PEDs can have on performance of safety-critical ground and flight operations.”
The latest series of PED recommendations arises from the Safety Board's investigation into the loss of aAS350 B2 helicopter that crashed on Aug. 26, 2011, in Mosby, Mo., killing all on board — the pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic and patient. Air Methods, doing business as LifeNet in the Heartland, operated the helicopter.
Essentially, the helicopter flew three legs in daylight VFR conditions, ran out of fuel and then crashed at the bottom of a mismanaged autorotation. The Safety Board determined the probable causes were: the pilot's failure to confirm that the helicopter had adequate fuel on board to complete the mission before making the first departure, his improper decision to continue the mission and make a second departure after he became aware of a critically low fuel level, and his failure to successfully enter an autorotation when the engine lost power due to fuel exhaustion.
Contributing to the accident, said the Safety Board, 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 requiring that a [company] 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.
While the NTSB has been chasing the PED demon for quite a while, the other identified contributing factors may be more important. Arguably, PEDs can be a distraction; but fatigue, misunderstanding of critical performance factors and inexact training may have more relevancy in the greater scheme of helicopter safety.