Friday, January 19, 2007

"Would you please please please please
please please please stop talking?"

The words are from Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," but they might as well have belonged to a frustrated Federal Aviation Administration, which has long been trying to crack down on idle chatter in the cockpit, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Less than seven months before Comair Flight 5191 crashed into a field near Blue Grass Airport, the National Transportation Safety Board -- responding to a commuter plane crash in Missouri that killed 13 -- recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require airlines to crack down on extraneous cockpit conversations.

In response, the FAA put out a safety alert, instructing airlines to emphasize the importance of maintaining a "sterile cockpit" -- in other words, to remind pilots not to engage in the kind of casual chatter that the pilots on Comair 5191 engaged in.

According to NTSB transcripts of Flight 5191's cockpit voice recorder, released by the agency Wednesday, co-pilot James Polehinke and pilot Jeffrey Clay talked about kids, dogs and careers before taxiing onto the runway, and they continued their conversation as they prepared for takeoff.
The cockpit voice recorder transcript from Comair Flight 5191 dramatically illustrates how the runway to the tragedy was paved by mundane chatter.
Clay: (06:00:09) Both kids were sick though, they, well they all got colds. It was an interesting dinner last night.

Polehinke: (06:00:16) Really.

Clay: (06:00:16) Huh, oh gosh.

Polehinke (06:00:19) How old are they?

Clay: (06:00:20) Three months and two years old. Who was sneezing, either nose wiped, diaper change. I mean that's all we did all night long.

Polehinke: (06:00:31) Oh yeah, I'm sure.


Polehinke: (6:06:07) Set thrust, please.

Clay: (6:06:11) Thrust set.

Polehinke: (6:06:13) That is weird with no lights.

Clay: (6:06:18) Yeah. One-hundred knots.

Polehinke: (6:06:25) Checks.

Clay: (6:06:31) V-one rotate. Whoa.

(6:06:33) Sound of impact, unintelligible exclamation.
The copilot was the sole survivor of the August 27 crash in Lexington that killed 49 people after the plane tried to take off on the wrong runway, which was much too short. His lawyer was quick to point out that the chatter stopped well before the actual takeoff, and that there were other causes of the accident, ranging from an inattentive air traffic controller to confusing construction going on at the airport. Still, chatter often shows up in voice recorders from fatal accidents. The Lexington Herald-Leader had a sidebar featuring "other 'sterile-cockpit rule' crashes." An example:

What happened: Plane crashed 22 seconds after takeoff, after the crew failed to set the wing flaps properly. In the minutes before takeoff, 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 make their cockpit conversation public, The Associated Press reported.
Currently, cockpit voice recorders are erased after flights with no incident. Some have suggested the FAA first make random checks of the the recordings to look for sterile cockpit rule violations. Or maybe they could just try saying "Please."

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