WASHINGTON — The pilot of an emergency medical helicopter flying over Missouri was sending and receiving text messages before a 2011 crash, the first time such distractions have been implicated in a fatal commercial-aviation accident.
Texting increased the likelihood of attention lapses and errors, Bill Bramble, a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said at a hearing on the accident Tuesday. The safety board is meeting to assign a probable cause for the accident that killed four people, including a patient.
The NTSB documented 20 texts sent and received by the pilot before and during the flight, according to agency records.
The Air Methods Corp. helicopter crashed in a field after running out of fuel, according to preliminary NTSB reports. Use of electronic devices by pilots during flight was prohibited by company rules, according to the reports.
“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.
This is the first time the NTSB has uncovered evidence of texting or mobile-phone use during a flight involved in a fatal accident, Kelly Nantel, an NTSB spokeswoman, said in an email.
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, Air Methods President Mike Allen 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, Colo., says on its website that it operates more than 300 air-medical bases in 48 states.
The crash on Aug. 26, 2011, in Mosby, Mo., killed Terry Tacoronte, a patient who was being flown from one hospital to another. Pilot James Freudenbert, flight nurse Randy Bever and paramedic Chris Frakes also died. The helicopter was being operated under the name LifeNet.
Freudenbert 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 co-worker, 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.
Freudenbert, 34, who told the co-worker he hadn’t slept well the night before, failed to refuel the helicopter before flying to a hospital in Bethany, Mo., 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 headed to Midwest National Air Center Airport in Mosby when the helicopter went down.
Taking off on the final flight may have violated U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations on how much fuel is required, according to NTSB records. 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.
Freudenbert 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.
“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. Freudenbert never radioed that he was having an emergency.
The preliminary NTSB reports didn’t say why the helicopter struck the ground with such force. A powerless helicopter should be able to land safely.
Air Methods prohibits its pilots from using mobile phones during flights, according to NTSB’s preliminary reports.
While FAA regulations also prohibit extraneous conversation and using personal electronic devices during “critical” phases of commercial flights, it allows their use during level cruise flight.
“It’s hard to know what to say,” Tom Judge, executive director of LifeFlight of Maine, the state’s emergency helicopter service, and an advocate for enhanced safety, said in an interview. “We’ve got to increase the level of accountability.”
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 email, said Lee, who studies people’s interaction with technology. Such distractions from multitasking have been linked to medical errors, he said.
NTSB Chairman Debbie 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.