Texting While Flying Linked to Commercial Crash in First

April 9 (Bloomberg) -- Texting by a pilot before and during a 2011 medical-helicopter flight in Missouri contributed to its crash, the first time such distractions have been implicated in a fatal commercial-aviation accident, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board found.

The distraction from texting helped lead the pilot to take off without enough fuel, the investigative agency found at a hearing today in Washington. The helicopter’s engine stopped after the pilot made a false report about how much fuel was aboard, the NTSB found.

While calling texting a contributing factor rather than a probable cause of the accident that killed four people, including the pilot, the safety board voted to issue a warning today about the distractions posed by using wireless devices during flight.

“With these portable electronic devices, it’s an addiction,” NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in an interview after the hearing. “We have got to figure out how to keep them out of the environment where there are safety-critical things happening in transportation.”

The NTSB documented at least 240 texts sent and received by the pilot during his shift the day of the accident, according to records cited by Bill Bramble, an NTSB investigator. There were 20 such texts with a coworker before and during the accident, the safety board found.

The Air Methods Corp. helicopter crashed in a field after running out of fuel, the NTSB found. Use of electronic devices by pilots during flight was prohibited by company rules, according to the safety board.

Fuel Reserves

The cause of the crash was the pilot’s decision to make the flight while knowing he didn’t have enough fuel reserves, the NTSB found. The pilot also failed to perform a maneuver that may have allowed a soft landing after the engine quit, partly because he hadn’t been sufficiently trained, according to the NTSB.

The pilot missed at least three opportunities to discover the lack of fuel and could have made an emergency landing in the minutes before the crash, the board found. The texting, which also occurred as pilot James Freudenberg was planning where to refuel, created distractions that helped lead to the blunders, according to the NTSB.

“This is a classic example of dividing attention in a way that compromises safety,” said David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who has studied how personal electronic devices cause distraction.

Safety Improvements

While mobile-phone use and texting has arisen in private-plane accidents and in other modes of transportation, this was the the first time the NTSB found it contributed to a fatal commercial accident.

In talks he gives on distracted driving, Strayer said he often asks people what they would think about an airline pilot phoning to make dinner reservations while approaching an airport.

“Curiously enough, here is a situation in which that ludicrous example occurred,” Strayer said. “Now you’ve got it coming full circle.”

The company has put in place safety improvements since the accident, Mike Allen, president of domestic air medical services at Air Methods, said in a statement. Among the changes is a “zero tolerance policy” for mobile phone use during flight, Allen said.

Air Methods, based in Englewood, Colorado, says on its website that it operates more than 300 air-medical bases in 48 states. It is the largest air medical transport company in the U.S., Hersman said.

Four Texts

The accident is another example of the growing risks on the roads and in other forms of transportation as mobile phones become more popular, Hersman said.

“How many more deaths is it going to take before we get serious on this?” she said.

The crash on Aug. 26, 2011, in Mosby, Missouri, killed Terry Tacoronte, a patient who was being flown from one hospital to another. Tacoronte was suffering from abdominal pains, Gary Robb, a Kansas City lawyer who filed suit in behalf of her family, said in an interview.

Freudenberg, Randy Bever, a flight nurse, and Chris Frakes, a paramedic, also died. The helicopter was being operated under the name LifeNet.

Freudenberg received four texts, three of them from a friend at work, and sent three others during the flight, according to NTSB records. He was planning to have dinner with the coworker, according to the records.

Another 13 texts were logged on his phone in the 71 minutes before the flight, including two during a previous flight, according to NTSB records.

Federal Regulations

Freudenberg, 34, who told the coworker he hadn’t slept well the night before, failed to refuel the helicopter before flying to a hospital in Bethany, Missouri, to pick up Tacorente, according to NTSB records.

He realized his mistake after landing at the hospital and discussed where to get more fuel with a company dispatcher. He was about a mile from Midwest National Air Center Airport in Mosby when the helicopter went down.

Taking off on the final flight violated U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations on how much fuel is required, the NTSB found. Helicopters carrying passengers for hire must carry a 20-minute fuel reserve beyond what they need to get to their destination, according to NTSB records.

Freudenberg radioed a dispatcher after takeoff that he had enough fuel to fly 45 minutes. The copter was aloft for 30 minutes before it ran out of fuel, according to NTSB records.

Warning Light

“I don’t want to run short and I don’t want to run into that 20-minute reserve if I don’t have to,” he radioed a company dispatcher shortly before taking off.

The Eurocopter AS350 helicopter was equipped with a warning light to alert pilots when fuel ran low, according to the records. Freudenberg never radioed that he was having an emergency.

While Air Methods rules prohibited use of electronic devices during flight, the NTSB said airlines and other commercial flight operations should also prohibit their use on the ground during “safety-critical” activities.

The FAA proposed in January that personal electronic devices should not be used at any time during an airline flight. Small charter firms, such as Air Methods, are not covered under the proposal. The NTSB recommended that the FAA expand the rule to include all commercial operators.

Distracted Driving

The crash is different from what is commonly seen in distracted driving when a motorist takes his or her eyes off the road and causes an accident, John Lee, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, said in an interview.

Instead, it’s similar to an office worker who gets a phone call and forgets to send an e-mail, said Lee, who studies people’s interaction with technology. Such distractions from so-called multi tasking have been linked to medical errors, he said.

The NTSB’s Hersman and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have spoken out about increasing accidents in which mobile phones and other electronic devices have led to lapses in attention.

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, LaHood said in a blog post yesterday. Text messaging raises the risk of a crash on the road by 23 times, he said.

Use of electronic devices in the cockpit has occasionally come up in NTSB cases. The co-pilot on a Pinnacle Airlines Corp. Colgan Air flight that crashed near Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, killing 50 people, texted her husband while the plane was still on the ground before departure.

There have been 13 helicopter air-medical flight accidents since 2011, killing 12 people, according to NTSB records. Three of the accidents were on Air Methods helicopters.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net