WASHINGTON — The crash of a commuter jet that took off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky., last summer has thrown a spotlight on the FAA’s “sterile cockpit” rule — a commonly violated and difficult-to-enforce prohibition against extraneous conversation between the pilots.
The pilots of the Comair flight in Lexington were heard talking about their dogs, their kids and job opportunities just before the plane went down in flames after struggling to get airborne from a runway that was too short. The crash killed 49 of the 50 people aboard in the nation’s deadliest aviation disaster in five years.
Comair acknowledged that pilots Jeffrey Clay and James Polehinke violated sterile cockpit procedures after federal investigators released a transcript Wednesday of their conversation.
Investigators have not said what role, if any, the cockpit chatter played in the Aug. 27 crash. But several other air disasters have been blamed, at least in part, on instances in which pilots were too busy talking about things other than flying.
• A 2004 crash in Kirksville, Mo., that killed 13 of 15 people aboard a commuter airliner was blamed on the crew’s nonstop joking and expletive-laden banter in the cockpit.
• In 1988, a Delta Air Lines jet crashed 22 seconds after takeoff from Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport after the crew failed to set the wing flaps properly. Fourteen people were killed. In the minutes before takeoff, the crew members criticized Marilyn Quayle’s looks, said of Jesse Jackson, “You know, it’s scary that someone like him could get as far as he did,” and joked that a crash would one day make their cockpit conversation public.
The Federal Aviation Administration adopted the sterile cockpit rule in 1981. It was prompted in part by a 1974 crash in Charlotte, N.C., that killed 71 people; the pilots were talking about politics while making their landing approach in bad weather. The rule prohibits extraneous conversation during taxi, takeoff and landing and operations below 10,000 feet.
Aviation insiders say the rule is often disobeyed.
“You can’t really expect human beings to be robots,” said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “A little bit of nonpertinent conversation, I’d say it happens quite frequently.”
Moreover, the rule is not easily enforceable.
Contract rules prohibit the FAA and airline from releasing — or even preserving — the cockpit recordings unless there has been an accident. In fact, if not for the Comair crash, the tape of the chatter would have been erased before anyone ever listened to it.
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“Ninety-nine percent of the time the cockpit voice recorder is never listened to,” said Faron Collins, a Lexington control tower operator who worked the shift immediately after the crash. “It probably happens more than the FAA would care to talk about.”
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said agency enforces the rule with regular ride-along inspections and anonymous incident reports that pilots can file about one another.
“We’re not there to watch every mechanic turn every screw, and we’re not there to listen to every cockpit crew listen to one another,” Brown said.
Violators may be punished with a letter of correction, a civil penalty, or a suspension or revocation of their pilots’ license, Brown said. She had no immediate figures on how often pilots are disciplined for sterile-cockpit violations.
As the Comair pilots went through preflight procedures, Clay talked about his young children having colds, Polehinke — the sole survivor — discussed his four dogs. The two men also talked about pay and working conditions, even as the controller occasionally interrupted to provide instructions.
Polehinke has not been stripped of his license. He lost a leg and suffered brain damage and has told relatives he remembers nothing about the accident.
Representatives of the Air Line Pilots Association declined to comment on sterile cockpit rules, citing the National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, said airlines “don’t have any indications this has become a growing problem.”
Robert Clifford, a lawyer representing several victims’ family members from the Kentucky crash, said the chatter reminds him of a 1994 American Eagle crash in Indiana. In that crash, a flight attendant had a lengthy chat with one of the pilots in the cockpit. That crash killed 68 people.
“I believe it happens all the time,” Clifford said. “There’s an adage, ‘No harm, no foul.’ Some level or measure of personal, non-work-based conversation is normal. There comes a point of time where game is on, and we’re focused on our work.”
Lowell Wiley, a Lexington flight instructor, said that even after decades in the cockpit, sometimes the sterile cockpit rule slips his mind. “Occasionally I’ll forget about it and say something,” Wiley said. “Things do come up and you’ll say something. There’s a lot of that going on.”
Ray Rowhuff, who spent 20 years flying for the Kansas Army National Guard and worked as a flight examiner, said of professional pilots: “It’s like people driving down the road and talking on the phone, putting on lipstick or putting on your trousers. Everybody knows you shouldn’t do that, but they do.”
Associated Press writer Mark Barnett in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this story.