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US: (Not a laser) Distraction from selfies and maybe camera flash likely cause of fatal crash, NTSB says

The National Transportation Safety Board reported on February 3 2015, that the May 31 2014 crash of a Cessna 150K which killed the pilot and a passenger, was due to taking “selfies” during the flight and becoming distracted. The Board concluded that the probable cause was “The pilot’s loss of control and subsequent aerodynamic stall due to spatial disorientation in night instrument meteorological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s distraction due to his cell phone use while maneuvering at low-altitude.”

Widely reported in the press was the fact that the cell phone camera’s flash function was used during an earlier portion of the flight. (The aircraft made one 6-minute flight around the traffic pattern, landed, took off again, made a left turn, stalled and spiraled into the ground.) As recorded by a second camera, a GoPro, during the 6-minute flight, the cameraphone flash was used “during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.”

The NTSB did not state whether the use of the camera flash impeded the pilot’s vision. He was able to successfully complete the first, 6-minute flight despite being flashed multiple times. It was on the second takeoff that the pilot stalled, leading to the spin into terrain.
The NTSB did refer to “degraded visual reference conditions”. In their probable cause report, the Board wrote “…it is likely that the pilot experienced spatial disorientation and lost control of the airplane…. Based on the evidence of cell phone use during low-altitude maneuvering, including the flight immediately before the accident flight, it is likely that cell phone use during the accident flight distracted the pilot and contributed to the development of spatial disorientation and subsequent loss of control.”

They also stated that the pilot’s logbooks indicated he was did not meet requirements for flying in the weather conditions (night instrument usage) or for flying at night with passengers.

Other photo and selfie use by commercial pilots

According to a story on Quartz.com, this is “the first time the NTSB has blamed a plane crash on the pilot taking photos.” The story noted that the pilot, Amritpal Singh, was not violating Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations for general aviation pilots by taking photos in the cockpit.

An earlier Quartz story detailed how commercial pilots took photos, videos and even selfies while in the cockpit. The December 12 2014 story is entitled “The pilots of Instagram: beautiful views from the cockpit, violating rules of the air.” The reporter, David Yanofsky, looked at hundreds of Instagram accounts over a six month period. He found “a trove of photos and videos taken by people clearly sitting in the pilot or co-pilot seat on commercial flights. Many images appear to have been captured during critical phases of flight, like takeoff and landing.” According to Yanofsky, the FAA does require commercial flights to have a “sterile cockpit” on takeoff, from taxiing to 10,000 feet, and again on landing from 10,0000 feet until gate parking. This rule only allows “essential operational activities” and thus would not allow photo or video usage. The rule does not apply to general aviation — the classification for the fatal May 31 2014 Cessna flight — or for planes with no commercial passengers.

Yanofsky’s story includes photos of pilots, apparently flying commercial airliners or for air carriers, taking pictures of themselves in the cockpit. Some of the pictures appear to be taken in flight. The author notes that “Quartz attempted to contact all of the pilots whose photos are in this story, and most did not reply. Some deleted their accounts on Instagram, and others made them private.”

From the NTSB’s probable cause summary. Also available is the detailed report of factual findings here and (in a different format) here