‘Texting While Flying’ Linked to Fatal Helicopter Crash

Perhaps there’s another reason why everyone should power off their devices before liftoff.

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An emergency airlift helicopter is seen preparing for take-off.

Perhaps there’s another reason why everyone should power off their devices before liftoff.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has officially linked the cause of a fatal medical helicopter crash in 2011 to its pilot texting on his phone during the flight, reports Bloomberg. It is the first time that “texting while flying” has been linked to a fatal commercial air crash.

Missouri pilot James Freudenbert had reportedly been texting back and forth before the emergency medical helicopter he was flying crashed in a field in August 2011. Freudenbert and his three passengers — flight nurse Randy Bever,  paramedic Chris Frakes and their patient, Terry Tacoronte, all perished.

According to records, Freudenbert received four texts during the flight and then sent three texts to at least two different people. He was planning to have dinner with a coworker.

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The official NTSB review, it’s important to note, only cited his texting as a contributing factor in the crash — the proximate cause was the fact that Freudenbert took off from Taraconte’s hospital in Bethany, Missouri, without enough fuel to complete the trip. But the safety board — which reportedly documented 240 texts sent or received by Freudenbert during his shift — concluded at a hearing Tuesday that the texting may have distracted the pilot from noticing his low fuel levels before he took off.

Federal rules state that passenger-carrying helicopters must carry enough fuel in reserve to fly for 20-minutes beyond their original destination.

“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 told Bloomberg.

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John Lee, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, elaborates:

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 medical transportation company, Air Methods, plans to implement a zero-tolerance policy in light of the new information. The company already prohibits pilots from using mobile phones during flights.