When David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, lectures about distracted driving, he often asks people how they’d feel if their pilot whipped out his phone to make dinner reservations while landing the airplane. The thought may be unnerving, but it’s kind of unlikely. Except that it actually happened.
Texting might have been a factor in an emergency medical helicopter that crashed in Missouri in 2011, says National Transportation Safety Board investigators. Four people died, including LifeNet pilot James Freudenbert, after the Air Methods Corp. aircraft ran out of fuel.
So what’s the link between insufficient fuel and mobile phones? Well, the investigating agency discovered that the pilot took off with a short supply because he was distracted by texting. Freudenbert was found to have sent and received 240 texts during his shift that day, with 13 taking place right before the flight. Then — against company regulations — he sent and received seven texts midflight, while he was at the controls. He wasn’t doing anything suspicious or even urgent during the flight; he was simply arranging dinner plans.
The NTSB stopped short of calling this probable cause, and left it as a contributing factor. But it’s pretty momentous still, because it’s the first time that mobile phone distraction was implicated in a commercial aviation crash.