Pilot Cell Phone Use: Don't Be That Guy


Photo: Jorge Quinteros/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let's talk about your iPhone. It's no secret that the selfie craze has made its way into the cockpit. And why not? As pilots, we get to witness so many beautiful things from a few thousand feet in the air - the sun reflecting off of a puffy cloud layer, a gorgeous sunset against a vast horizon, the city landscape on a foggy morning. We have a great view - some of us are lucky enough to call it our office and get to see it daily - and we should feel free to snap a photo and capture a memory from time to time. And what harm is done by answering that text while we're at it?

But are pilots overdoing it with the selfies and other cell phone distractions? Are we are putting the safety of our flight at stake when we stop to snap a photo or text a friend?

David Yanofsky, a writer for Quartz, seems to think so. In a recent article detailing the "Pilots of Instagram," Yanofsky calls out a number of pilots for violating the sterile cockpit rule and FAA policy on portable electronic devices (PEDs). Yanofsky, whose article made him wildly unpopular among aviation professionals in the social media world, brings attention to yet another way that pilots might become distracted in the cockpit, but he was widely criticized for bringing negative attention to something that really isn't a problem. An airline pilot who snaps a photo of the clouds from 30,000 feet probably isn't creating any sort of hazard at all. Common sense tells you that the short attention diversion in this scenario is really no different than if a pilot glances at his watch for a moments or looks down to read a chart, or is otherwise engaged in conversation with her copilot. But common sense - and a will to survive - should also tell us that taking selfies while flying an approach just shouldn't happen.

The trouble is that often times where common sense should prevail, it doesn't. And there are at least a few cases to prove it. Selfies, or using personal electronic devices for texting has been a contributing factor during a few recent plane crashes.

In Denver last year, a pilot made a series of errors in judgment and crashed after stalling his aircraft during an approach. He and his passenger both died. Soon after, the NSTB reported that the pilots had been taking selfies while in the pattern. At night. In low IMC. Using the flash. We all shake our heads in disbelief, but I'm guessing this person thought of himself as a smart guy. And maybe he was a smart guy. Common sense can clearly escape the best of us if it means we get an awesome photo to share in Facebook. (The pilot also happened to be flying at night and in IMC without meeting the currency requirements for either… but that's another story.)

In 2011, four people died when a medical helicopter operating a commercial flight crashed in a field in Missouri. The helicopter ran out of fuel, and the NTSB listed "the pilot's distracted attention due to personal texting during safety-critical ground and flight operations" as a contributing factor.

More recently, it was reported that a student pilot is suing his flight school, claiming that his instructor was on FaceTime during a simulated engine emergency last December, causing an accident that left the student in critical condition and killed the instructor. The NTSB accident report does not mention the pilot's use of his phone during the flight, but the student's lawyer says they're suing.

In 2014, the FAA issued a Final Rule that restricts Part 121 (airline) pilots from operating any electronic devices for personal during flight operations. The rules states that pilots are only allowed to use company-issued devices for tasks that are directly related to the operation of the flight, for safety-related purposes or for company communications. But this rule does not apply to Part 135 or Part 91 operations. General aviation pilots are allowed to use cell phone and iPads during flight, for which most of us are grateful. After all, where would we be without ForeFlight? And how convenient is it to use our phone to call for a clearance instead of relying on an RCO? And, of course, it's nice to be able to capture a beautiful sunset on camera every now and then.

But we should not be taking selfies on final approach at night and in IMC, or during any other critical phase of flight. And we should really try to limit our cell phone use during flight to aircraft operations and emergencies only to ensure we don't lose focus on the task at hand and find ourselves the recipient of an FAA violation or worse, a fatal accident.

Don't be that guy. Don't be the guy taking selfies on final approach. Don't be that guy using FaceTime in the middle of a training flight. Don't be that guy messing with the GoPro at 300 feet on upwind because you forgot to turn it on during the preflight. Don't be the guy that dies in a plane crash, leaving photos or video footage of your mistakes in your wake.

Maybe we should just put down the phone, look out the window and enjoy the view.