NTSB probes texting pilot in fatal medical helicopter crash - WSMV News 4


NTSB probes case of texting pilot in fatal medical helicopter crash

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Evidence gathered in an investigation of a fatal medical helicopter crash last year in northwest Missouri has raised questions about whether the accident was caused by a pilot who was busy texting personal messages.

Investigators say the pilot may have been distracted and failed to refuel the helicopter before he took off and misjudged how far the aircraft could fly without more fuel.

The case underscores concerns the board has already expressed that use of cell phones and other distracting electronic devices has increasingly become a factor in accidents and incidents across all modes of transportation - planes, trains, cars, trucks and even ships.

The Aug. 26, 2011, accident, which killed four people, appears to be the first fatal commercial aircraft accident investigated by the board in which texting has been implicated. The helicopter went down in a field near Mosby.

The pilot, James Freudenberg, 34, of Rapid City, SD, exchanged 20 text messages with a female co-worker over a span of less than two hours before the helicopter crashed into a farm field a little over a mile from where he hoped to refuel, documents made public by NTSB show. 

Freudenberg took off from a St. Joseph hospital and flew to Bethany Community Hospital where he picked up Terry Tacoronte, 58, who was going to Liberty Hospital for treatment.

At least three of Freudenberg's messages were sent and five received while the helicopter was in flight.

The five-member National Transportation Safety 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.

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 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.

However, no texts were sent in the final 11 minutes of the last leg of the flight, according to a timeline prepared by investigators.

The timeline indicates Freudenberg also exchanged text messages at the same time he was reporting by radio to a company communications center that the helicopter was low on fuel. The helicopter was on the ground at the time waiting for the patient, who was being transferred from one hospital to another, and a nurse and a paramedic to board.

Attorney Kirk Presley, who represents five family members of the paramedic and flight nurse killed when the aircraft went down, said Freudenberg didn't read his fuel gauge before taking off.

Failing to complete the important pre-flight safety checks proved fatal for those on board, Presley said. The texting and emails were human errors that led to the pilot failing to have enough fuel, he said.

"Each error multiplied and mounted and led to the death of the pilot and everyone on board," the attorney said.

Although the pilot wasn't texting at the time of the crash, it's possible the messaging took his mind off his duties, interrupted his chain of thought and caused him to skip safety steps he might have otherwise performed, experts on human performance and cognitive distractions said. 

"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."

In October 2010, two Northwest Airlines pilots overflew their destination of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by 100 miles while they were engrossed in working on flight schedules on their laptops.

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 was operated by a subsidiary of Air Methods Corp. of Englewood, CO, 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.

Presley also faults the helicopter manufacturer for failing to educate pilots on how to land safely if they run out of fuel or have another issue.

The family members suing settled with Freudenberg's estate and Air Methods, which operated the helicopter and employed the pilot. Litigation is still pending with the manufacturer.

Freudenberg apparently didn't check the amount of fuel on board the helicopter before taking off from the company's base in St. Joseph, MO, even though he had been briefed that the aircraft would be low on fuel because it had been used the night before for training exercises. He radioed that he had two hours of fuel shortly after the helicopter was airborne.

But when the helicopter landed less than 10 minutes later in Bethany to pick up the patient, Freudenberg radioed the communications center again to report that the copter was lower on fuel than he had initially thought. He estimated he had about 45 minutes worth of fuel, and said he didn't want to use any of the 20 minutes of reserve fuel federal regulations require be maintained. Investigators calculate he actually had 33 minutes worth of fuel left at that point.

Freudenberg opted to continue the patient transfer to Liberty's hospital, changing plans only enough for a stop at an airfield a few miles closer than the Liberty hospital. The helicopter stalled and crashed at 6:41 p.m. CDT on a clear summer evening before reaching the airfield. A low fuel warning light might have alerted Freudenberg 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 were told.

The family members of the victims hope that the case forces changes that prevent future tragedies like this.

"The real problem in this case was there was a cascading series of errors that culminated in a horrific accident of Himalayan proportions," Presley said.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and the Associated Press. All rights reserved.

  • UPDATENTSB probes case of texting pilot in fatal medical helicopter crashMore>>

  • Statement from Air Methods Corp.

    Statement from Air Methods Corp.

    Tuesday, April 9 2013 12:05 PM EDT2013-04-09 16:05:07 GMT
    Air Methods President Mike Allen released the following statement Tuesday: "We would like to thank the NTSB for their efforts on this matter. We appreciate their thoroughness, professionalism and transparency.
    Air Methods President Mike Allen released the following statement Tuesday: "We would like to thank the NTSB for their efforts on this matter. We appreciate their thoroughness, professionalism and transparency.More >>
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