Pilot's texting at issue in fatal crash of medical helicopter

Evidence from the 2011 crash of an emergency medical helicopter in Missouri shows that before the accident, the pilot was texting about a dinner date. The crash killed four people.

A screenshot from an informative video on the Air Methods Web site shows a helicopter and gurney. Screenshot by CNET

It seems no one is immune from the lure of the cell phone. Not even pilots. Not even in midflight.

National Transportation Safety Board records show that the pilot of a medical helicopter sent and received texts before the helicopter crashed in Missouri, killing four people.

As Bloomberg reports, the helicopter was operated by Air Methods Corporation, an air medical transport contractor whose policy forbids its pilots from using their cell phones in flight. The company didn't respond to Bloomberg's requests for comment, according to the news agency. We've contacted Air Methods and will update this report if we hear back.

The suggestion is that the pilot's texts weren't exactly urgent. He allegedly was making dinner plans with a co-worker.

The pilot, James Freudenbert, died, along with a flight nurse, a paramedic, and their patient.

FAA regulations allow pilots to text during level cruise flight, but not during "critical" parts of the flight.

The NTSB told Bloomberg that this is the first time the board has seen flight fatalities linked to in-flight texting. The board meets today to assign a cause to the crash.

Earlier this year, a plane while taxiing hit ground lights at JFK. Accusations followed that the pilot had been distracted by cell phone use.

In the Missouri case, the exact circumstances surrounding the accident aren't clear. NTSB records show that Freudenbert had neglected to refuel the helicopter before flying to a hospital. When the helicopter crashed, it hit the ground with considerable force. As Bloomberg reported, a pilot should be able to land a powerless helicopter safely. The helicopter reportedly had a fuel warning light. Freudenbert never alerted anyone that any sort of emergency was being experienced.

Update 11:09 a.m. PT: Mike Allen, president of Air Methods, gave me this statement: "We would like to thank the NTSB for their efforts on this matter. We appreciate their thoroughness, professionalism and transparency. Once the final NTSB report of the August 2011 Mosby accident is completed, we will study the report closely, and look to further improve our processes and procedures. Air Methods has an excellent safety record and safety is our number one priority. Based upon the investigation to date, we have already initiated a number of safety improvements. Prior to the accident, use of electronic devices by pilots during flight was prohibited by company policy. Since the accident, we have instituted a zero tolerance policy for use of cell phones during flight. We are the most experienced national emergency helicopter company in America and we are prepared to work with the NTSB and the FAA to raise the bar to ensure the safety of those who fly with us."

Update April 10 at 3:47 p.m. PT: The NTSB ruled yesterday that "distracted attention due to texting" was one of four factors that contributed to the accident, along with "fatigue, the operator's lack of policy requiring that a flight operations specialist be notified of abnormal fuel situations, and the lack of realistic training for entering an autorotation at cruise airspeed."

The synopsis report (PDF) from the NTSB said that although the agency could find "no evidence that the pilot was texting at the time of the engine failure," the pilot had "sent and received multiple personal text messages throughout the day, including during time periods when the helicopter was in flight."

 

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