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The Sterile Cockpit

No, this is not about vasectomies or cleanliness in the cabin. Several recent fixed and rotary wing accidents indicate that pilots conversing with passengers or other crew members on insignificant topics during critical operations including takeoffs and landings have led to accidents.


March 12, 2010
By Ken Armstrong

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No, this is not about vasectomies or cleanliness in the cabin. Several recent fixed and rotary wing accidents indicate that pilots conversing with passengers or other crew members on insignificant topics during critical operations including takeoffs and landings have led to accidents.  Unlike airlines/carriers, almost all of our rotary wing operations do not include cockpit voice recorders (CVRs), so there is virtually no record of the frequency of this phenomenon other than survivor testimony.

Although the large carriers almost always have restrictions on cockpit conversations and CVRs installed, our industry and Transport Canada have not seen fit to legislate such regulations – and I believe this is a good thing. However, most of us are aware of occasions when flight safety was compromised because crew members or passengers broke the silence – and our concentration.

My opposition to mandating new regulations on sterile cockpits is largely due to the fact we already have too many regulations.  Why do we have so many? Well, Transport Canada has been forced to create rules to attempt to overcome our very high accident rate when common sense by aircrews would have avoided at least three quarters of these avoidable crashes.  Another problem with high levels of regulation is that the overwhelming number of rules is beyond most aviators’ comprehension and understanding.  And the more rules we have and the less comprehensible they are, the more violations will occur. 

Additionally, there is tendency among some pilots to rebel against over-regulation because they feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the bureaucracy and they simply disregard all regulation as they see fit.  While these individuals are fairly few and far between, they are often the primary causal factor in accidents.

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So, what can we do to avoid regulation on sterile cockpits in the future?  Like almost everything else, it’s a matter of education.  To nip this issue in the bud, we need to educate budding commercial pilots to the importance of task concentration.  Research proves that high stress levels reduce performance. Our flying tasks can be exceedingly challenging during difficult operations and an inappropriate or unnecessary remark by a cockpit occupant can grasp our attention and rob us of a portion of our attention and judgment. During flight checks, senior company pilots need to reinforce sterile cockpit procedures by avoiding unnecessary chatting to the student/pilot and reminding them of the benefits.

Typically, passengers are not aware of the concentration required for critical manoeuvring and do not anticipate risks – they trust us pilots to protect them.  Picture an approach to a high mountain pinnacle on a hot and windy day with a heavily loaded helicopter.  The pilot has not briefed the passengers on exiting the helicopter from a low hover or with a skid touching partially because he did not anticipate the need for this sort of landing.  During the approach he absent-mindedly assumes all the occupants have accomplished this task before.  Passengers generally don’t consider or understand the effects of high density altitude, the height velocity curve avoid areas, the vertical wind sheer and currents due to the strong winds and mechanical turbulence, nor the lateral or longitudinal C of G limits of the helicopter.  But, for this task, the pilot should be considering all of these topics. 

After placing the heel of one skid on the pinnacle with the helicopter hanging over a precipitous drop at full power, what does the pilot do when the passengers begin asking how they should exit and how they will get the equipment out of the cargo compartments?  The very least the pilot should have accomplished for this unplanned deplaning was an aerial briefing when it became obvious the pinnacle landing was necessary. How do we educate our passengers and elicit their silence during critical operations?  This brings us to the Transport Canada mandated safety briefing.  Accident investigations commonly show that passengers did not receive a satisfactory safety briefing and this may not only contribute to an accident but may also minimize occupants’ chances for their survival afterwards.

So, if you have not been briefing your crew and passengers about the need for silence during critical operations, it’s time to add it to the pre-flight safety briefing.

Exceptions to the sterile cockpit rule?  Some instances might include advising the pilot when an occupant sees a wire on the approach to a new landing site, loose objects in the landing area or other hazards such as conflicting traffic.

Let’s avoid accidents by employing sterile cockpit techniques before Transport Canada drafts regulations.


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