May 9, 2012

A recent Australian Transport Safety Bureau report on an incident involving an Australian airliner has once again reinforced the importance of following “sterile cockpit” procedures and minimizing distractions during critical phases of operations.

Media reports of a May 2010 incident involving a Jetstar Airbus A320 came to light in mid-April. According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s report, the cockpit crew became distracted by the captain’s cell phone during an approach to land in Singapore. The airliner descended through 500 feet AGL before the crew realized the landing gear had not been fully extended; the crew initiated a go-around from an altitude of just 392 feet.

It is incidents such as this that prompted civil aviation authorities worldwide to implement sterile cockpit regulations years ago. The goal is to prevent unnecessary crew distractions during critical phases of ground and flight operations. In the United States, FAR Parts 121.542 and 135.100 require that air carrier crews only perform the duties required for safe operation of the aircraft during ground operations involving taxi, takeoff and landing; and all flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet MSL except cruise flight. No extraneous conversations between crewmembers, including the cabin crew, are allowed.

While that regulation only directly applies to for-hire operations, Part 91 operators also benefit from implementing sterile cockpit rules as part of their standard operating procedures. But, how best can a flight department ensure that sterile cockpit guidelines are followed?

“That depends on the culture of a particular flight department, and how much importance they place on complying with sterile cockpit procedures,” said J.R. Russell, chairman of Pro-Active Safety Systems and a member of the NBAA Safety Committee. “A flight department with a good safety management system (SMS) will have a sterile flight deck procedure in place, but it’s the culture of that organization that ensures that attitude also carries through to the director of aviation or chief pilot, and then down to the pilot-in-command (PIC). It’s the PIC who ultimately sets the tone and expectation that the crew will adhere to standard operating procedures throughout the flight.”

Russell noted that pilots typically violate sterile cockpit procedures out of boredom, or complacency. “We all make mistakes,” he acknowledged, “but regardless of who breaks from the sterile cockpit, it’s up to the other pilot or crewmembers to remind them they’re in a sterile environment during critical phases.”

That includes ground operations, as well. “Any time the parking brake is released, that’s a critical phase,” Russell added. “If a crew is distracted on the ground, it could lead to a runway incursion, or hitting another aircraft.

“Pilots are the final filter to prevent an incident from occurring; if they’re distracted from a critical task, it reduces the effectiveness of that filter.”

More information about safe operating procedures, including guidance on sterile cockpit regulations, is available to Members in the NBAA Management Guide.