Sunday, April 20, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

NTSB: Pilot’s texting contributed to copter crash

Distracted Flying

This photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, shows the wreckage of a helicopter that crashed near Mosby, Mo., on Aug. 26, 2011. The pilot of an emergency medical helicopter may have been distracted by text messages when he failed to refuel his helicopter and misjudged how far he could fly before running out of fuel. The helicopter crashed, killing the pilot and three others on board. Government investigators are expected to point the case as another example of the distracting role cellphones and other electronic devices are playing in transportation accidents. (AP Photo/NTSB)

WASHINGTON — Texting by the pilot of a medical helicopter contributed to a crash that killed four people, federal accident investigators declared Tuesday, and they approved a safety alert cautioning all pilots against using cellphones or other distracting devices during critical operations.

It was the first fatal commercial aircraft accident investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board in which texting has been implicated. And it underscored the board’s worries that distractions from electronic devices are a growing factor in incidents across all modes of transportation — planes, trains, cars, trucks and even ships.

While no U.S. airline crashes have been tied to electronic device use, the Federal Aviation Administration in January proposed regulations prohibiting airline flight crews from using cellphones and other wireless devices while a plane is in operation. The regulations are required under a law passed last year by Congress in response to an October 2010 incident in which two Northwest Airlines pilots overflew their destination of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by 100 miles while they were engrossed in working on their laptops.

Regulations already in place prohibit airline pilots from engaging in potentially distracting activities during critical phases of flight such as takeoffs, landings and taxiing. In some cases, however, pilots are allowed to use tablet computers containing safety and navigation procedures known as “electronic flight bags,” replacing paper documents.

The five-member board unanimously agreed that the helicopter crash was caused by a distracted and tired pilot who skipped preflight safety checks, which would have revealed his helicopter was low on fuel, and then, after he discovered his situation, decided to proceed with the fatal last leg of the flight.

The case “juxtaposes old issues of pilot decision making with a 21st century twist: distractions from portable electronic devices,” said board Chairman Deborah Hersman.

The helicopter ran out of fuel, crashing into a farm field in clear weather early on the evening of Aug. 26, 2011, near Mosby, Mo., a little over a mile short of an airport. The pilot was killed, along with a patient being taken from one hospital to another, a flight nurse and a flight paramedic.

One board member, Earl Weener, dissented on the safety alert decision, saying the cases cited as the basis for it — including the medical helicopter accident — were the result of bad decisions by pilots without a direct connection to the use of distracting devices.

Other board members disagreed. “We see this as a problem that is emerging, and on that basis, let’s try to get ahead of it,” said board member Chris Hart.

The pilot, James Freudenberg, 34, of Rapid City, S.D., sent 25 text messages and received 60 more during the course of his 12-hour shift, including 20 messages exchanged during the hour and 41 minutes before the crash, according to investigators and a timeline prepared for the board.

Most of the messaging was with an off-duty female co-worker with whom Freudenberg had a long history of “frequent, intensive communications,” and with whom he was planning to have dinner that night, said Bill Bramble, an NTSB expert on pilot psychology.

Three of the messages were sent, and five were received while the helicopter was in flight, although none in the final 11 minutes before it crashed, according to the NTSB timeline.

The helicopter was operated by a subsidiary of Air Methods Corp. of Englewood, Colo., the largest provider of air medical emergency transport services in the U.S. The company’s policies prohibit the use of electronic devices by pilots during flight. Most airlines and other commercial aircraft operators have similar policies.

The board concluded Freudenberg was fatigued as well as distracted. He had slept only five hours the night before, and the accident occurred at the end of his 12-hour shift.

He was told when he came on duty that the helicopter was low on fuel. But later in the day he missed several opportunities to correct the fuel situation before he took off for a hospital in Bethany, Mo., the first leg of the trip. Among those missed opportunities were failing to conduct a pre-flight check and to look at the craft’s fuel gauge. Shortly after takeoff, he radioed that he had two hours of fuel. He apparently realized his mistake later during the flight.

While waiting on the ground in Bethany for the patient and the medical crew, Freudenberg exchanged text messages as he was reporting by radio to a company communications center that the helicopter was lower on fuel than he had originally thought. He told the communications center he had about 45 minutes worth of fuel, which investigators said they believe was a lie intended to cover up his earlier omissions and that he was in jeopardy of violating federal safety regulations.

In fact, the helicopter had 30 minutes of fuel left, investigators said. Federal Aviation Administration regulations require 20 minutes of reserve fuel at all times.

With no other place nearby to refuel, Freudenberg opted to continue the patient transfer to a hospital in Liberty, Mo., changing his flight plan enough for a stop at an airfield 32 minutes away for fuel. The helicopter stalled and crashed 30 minutes later.

A low fuel warning light might have alerted him to his true situation, but the light was set on “dim” for nighttime use and may not have been visible. A pre-flight check by the pilot, if it had been conducted, should have revealed the light was set in the wrong position, investigators said.

The board also said Freudenberg failed after losing engine power to set the helicopter up for a maneuver called autorotation, which employs updrafts to keep the rotor turning and permit the craft to glide to the ground. However, investigators said the pilot had only 2 seconds to complete three steps necessary for autorotation.

Although the Freudenberg wasn’t texting at the time of the crash, it’s possible the messaging took his mind off his duties and caused him to skip safety steps he might have otherwise performed, said experts on human performance and cognitive distraction. People can’t concentrate on two things at once; they can only shift their attention rapidly back and forth, the experts said. But as they do that, the sharpness of their focus begins to erode.

“People just have a limited ability to pay attention,” said David Strayer, a professor of cognitive and neural science at the University of Utah. “It’s one of the characteristics of how we are wired.”

“If we have two things demanding attention, one will take attention away from other,” he said. “If it happens while sitting behind a desk, it’s not that big of a problem. But if you are sitting behind the wheel of a car or in the cockpit of an airplane, you start to get serious compromises in safety.”

A text message — especially one accompanied by an audible alert like a buzz or bell — interrupts a person’s thoughts and can be hard to ignore, said Christopher Wickens, a University of Illinois professor emeritus of engineering and aviation psychology. If the subject of the email is especially engaging, or especially emotional, that also makes it hard to ignore, he said.

The helicopter pilot didn’t have a history of safety problems and was regarded as a good, safe pilot by his co-workers. He was a former Army pilot, and NTSB investigators said his actions on the day of the accident were apparently “out of character.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 1 comment

The Daily Republic does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • Rich GiddensApril 10, 2013 - 1:46 pm

    We already have ''sterile cockpit'' rules covering critical phases of flight and operations below 10,000 feet. This was imposed after the Sept 1972 crash of an Eastern flight coming out of Charleston during its landing at Charlotte. Comedian Stephen Colbert's (a Charlestonian) father and brother were killed in that crash. That crew was totally distracted during the approach and landing as they talked about anything and everything instead of concentrating and monitoring their duties during the arrival at Charlotte.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
.

Solano News

Bay Area makes growth plans

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A1

 
Supervisor candidates vary on Plan Bay Area

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Earth Day means cleanup Day for Suisun City

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A1, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
Hop to it: Couple lights up home, yard for Easter

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: C1

Ranking the best Bay Area athletes

By Brad Stanhope | From Page: A2

 
Piano scholarship competition set in Vallejo

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A3

The Edge hosts Easter egg hunt

By Adrienne Harris | From Page: A3

 
Alooma Temple keeps children in mind

By Adrienne Harris | From Page: A3 | Gallery

Fairfield author to speak at women’s expo

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A3

 
The resurrection has changed the lives of Christians

By Perry W. Polk | From Page: C3

 
Understanding your health insurance

By Morgan Westfall | From Page: D4

 
Armijo graduate completes basic training

By Nick DeCicco | From Page: C4

Highway 12 paving to slow traffic east of Rio Vista

By Adrienne Harris | From Page: A5

 
Record Store Day a commercial hit

By Adrienne Harris | From Page: A5 | Gallery

Easter egg hunt brings out the smiles

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A5 | Gallery

 
Dutch Bros. joins Fairfield coffee corridor

By Barry Eberling | From Page: B7 | Gallery

City sets plan to dispose of property assets

By Brian Miller and Karl Dumas | From Page: B7

 
Suisun City police log: April 17, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A12

Fairfield police log: April 17, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A12

 
.

US / World

Counties tell Brown they need money for his law

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
San Francisco probe leading to entrapment claims

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

Exhibit recreates Warhol’s 1964 World’s Fair mural

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10

 
NASA’s space station Robonaut finally getting legs

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10 | Gallery

Ohio couple married 70 years die 15 hours apart

By The Associated Press | From Page: A11 | Gallery

 
Documents detail another delayed GM recall

By The Associated Press | From Page: A11

At barricades, Ukraine insurgents await Easter

By The Associated Press | From Page: A13

 
Official: 3 bodies retrieved from inside ferry

By The Associated Press | From Page: A13 | Gallery

13th body pulled from snow in Everest avalanche

By The Associated Press | From Page: A13

 
Costa Rican a celebrity after certified miracle

By The Associated Press | From Page: A14 | Gallery

.

Opinion

Government … for the government?

By Bill James | From Page: A8

 
Editorial Cartoons for April 20, 2014

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Question of the week: Will Flight 370 be found?

By Daily Republic | From Page: A8

 
Neighborhood speeders don’t get it

By Letter to the Editor | From Page: A8

Why would a person do this?

By Letter to the Editor | From Page: A8

 
Sound off for April 20, 2014

By Daily Republic | From Page: A8

 
Jeb Bush, love, and today’s GOP

By Ruben Navarrette | From Page: A9

Statistical frauds distort equal-pay debate

By Thomas Sowell | From Page: A9

 
Are government ‘carrots’ fair, worthwhile?

By Brian Thiemer | From Page: A9

 
.

Living

Community Calendar: April 20, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A2

 
Today in History for April 20, 2014

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

Book details lives of cloistered nuns

By The Associated Press | From Page: C3

 
Bill Nye says he underestimated debate’s impact

By The Associated Press | From Page: C3

Horoscopes for April 20, 2014

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: D4

 
Pete spends weekends at my house but he never invites me to his

By Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar | From Page: D4

.

Entertainment

Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers has book deal

By The Associated Press | From Page: C2

 
Tartt, Goodwin finalists for Carnegie medals

By The Associated Press | From Page: C2

New book on fracking illuminates pros, cons

By The Associated Press | From Page: C2

 
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST-SELLERS

By The Associated Press | From Page: C2

TVGrid

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B11

 
.

Sports

Kings, Sharks look to put Game 1 in past

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Stults, Padres hand Giants third straight loss

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

A’s score 3 in 9th, rally past Astros 4-3

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Warriors beat Clippers 109-105 in playoff opener

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Hawks take 1-0 lead by rolling past Pacers 101-93

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Calathes suspension a reminder of supplement risk

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Raptors GM Ujiri uses profanity about Brooklyn

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Williams scores 24 as Nets beat Raptors 94-87

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2 | Gallery

 
Durant leads Thunder past Grizzlies 100-86

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Federer beats injured Djokovic to reach final

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3 | Gallery

 
Donald shoots 66, takes lead at RBC Heritage

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

Big names among prospective Buffalo Bills buyers

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

 
Indians set two new school records for track

By Daily Republic staff | From Page: B4

Wie shoots 67, wins LPGA LOTTE Championship

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

 
Travis Bowl Highlights

By Daily Republic | From Page: B4

Rapids, Earthquakes play to scoreless tie

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

 
Stars Recreation bowling results

By Daily Republic | From Page: B4

Jimenez leads Langer by 1 shot in Greater Gwinnett

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

 
Award-winning archery champ shoots with his teeth

By The Associated Press | From Page: B6 | Gallery

Survivors keep busy as Boston Marathon approaches

By The Associated Press | From Page: B6

 
.

Business

US delays review of contentious Keystone pipeline

By The Associated Press | From Page: B7

 
Why high oil prices are actually good for airlines

By The Associated Press | From Page: B7

Subscription sample boxes shake up beauty routines

By The Associated Press | From Page: B8

 
Girls from modest families get lift in technology

By The Associated Press | From Page: B12

Haunted house part of San Antonio apartment lofts

By The Associated Press | From Page: B13

 
Recalls this week: lanterns, exercise devices

By The Associated Press | From Page: B13

Review: Siri-like Cortana fills Windows phone gap

By The Associated Press | From Page: B14

 
.

Obituaries

James Leroy Barbour

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

 
William Paul Wehrly

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

Sealwyn Shirley Brucefield Shepherd Malkiewicz

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

 
Anne Irene Elizabeth Fulgoni

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

Margaret Elizabeth Silva

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A4

 
Lloyd G. Hoffmeister

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

Ramon Isidro

By Adrienne Harris | From Page: A4

 
Rogelio Tinoco-Zamudio

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A4

.

Comics