Cockpit Chit-Chat Cited in 6 Crashes
Airline pilots regularly violate federal law by chit-chatting or joking during critical phases of flight - the kind of distractions that may have played a role in two recent fatal crashes that killed a total of 62 people, according to government records.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has cited violations of the "sterile cockpit rule" in six crashes since 2004, a USA TODAY review found. In addition, the pilots of a commuter plane that crashed Feb. 12 near Buffalo were casually talking minutes before the accident that killed 50 people.
More than half - 11 out of 20 - of the cockpit recording transcripts released in serious accidents during the past decade contain evidence of violations, USA TODAY found.
Comments that range from mimicking a chicken to expletive-laced jokes were captured on cockpit recordings. Since 1981, federal law has barred such banter while taxiing and flying below 10,000 feet.
Pilots need to improve their discipline, according to some safety advocates.
"It is sending a signal that following the regulations are not necessary," said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt, a former airline pilot.
"We're seeing too many of these slips," said Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt.
Among the examples in NTSB records:
Pilots on a Great Lakes Airlines flight into St. Louis were making chicken noises and talking in character as they taxied on Sept. 7, 2008. The plane suffered substantial damage to the tail when it struck a building, but the four passengers were not injured.
The pilots of a Comair jet talked about other people applying for piloting jobs for 30 seconds as they taxied in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 27, 2006. The plane crashed while trying to take off on the wrong runway, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.
The pilots of a Corporate Airlines commuter plane approaching Kirksville, Mo., on Oct. 19, 2004, joked they should tell passengers "you people should all shut the (expletive) up." The pilots descended too low and struck the ground, killing themselves and 11 of 13 passengers.
Edwin Hutchins, a University of California, San Diego professor who has studied pilot behavior, cautioned that most violations are minor, and research hasn't shown a threat to safety.