The Associated Press is reporting that a medical helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed, killing four people, because the pilot was distracted by text messages. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still trying to determine the cause of the August 2011 crash near Mosby, Missouri, but it appears to be the first fatal commercial crash where texting has been implicated.
Apparently, the pilot exchanged 20 text messages, mostly with a coworker, over a span of less than two hours before running out of fuel and crashing in a field a mile from the airport. Investigators believe the pilot missed out on several opportunities to see just how low he was on fuel.
According to the accident timeline being put together, three of the text messages were sent and five were received while in flight, but none were sent during the final 11 minutes before the crash. Text messages were also exchanged while the helicopter was on the ground, including messages about the helicopter being low on fuel, even though the company which owned the helicopter had a policy of banning the use of electronic devices by pilots during flights.
With that in mind, the pilot may have been distracted from his duties – such as performing necessary safety checks and checking the amount of fuel on board before taking off (despite a briefing the aircraft would be low on fuel because it had been used the previous night for a training exercise).
During the flight, the pilot radioed that he was lower on fuel than he had initially thought and investigators also think he may have lied about how much fuel he had to cover up previous omissions. In addition, a low fuel warning light could have alerted the pilot, but it was set on “dim” for nighttime use while a pre-flight check (if one had in fact been conducted) should have revealed the light was set in the wrong position.
The AP article also noted the October 2010 incident where two Northwest Airlines pilots overflew their destination by 100 miles because they were too busy working on flight schedules on their laptops in the cockpit.