Sterile Cockpit

Friends- The weather is warm, the evenings are long, the grandchildren are fun, and I haven’t felt like writing. Fortunately I’ve received some help this month. Craig Levine comes from an airline back ground, and mentioned a particular concern of his. With a little arm twisting I convinced him to make the following contribution: Sterile Cockpit So there I was, sitting at the instructor meeting in a very comfortable location on the couch. We were discussing many issues in regards to improving safety at the field. I opened my mouth and made a few suggestions about sterile cockpit environment. The irony is that if I kept it “sterile” I wouldn’t be writing this article. However as soon opened my mouth Phil Klauder looked over at me and said “Good, can you write an article on the “Sterile Cockpit”. Ok let’s make it clear, my day job is a pilot and I’ve never been much of a writer but here goes nothing… By now you’re asking yourself does this apply to me or is Craig mixing up what he does at the airline with our flying at the field and just blowing smoke up my skirt? Yes it is true that strictly speaking, this rule is legally applicable to part 121(scheduled air carriers) and part 135(commercial operators). However for example, a pilot of an aircraft flying under part 91(non-commercial general aviation) rules could presumably be charged with careless and reckless operation under part 91.13 if an accident occurs as a result of distraction due to idle chatter or other non-essential activity during a critical phase of flight. To sum up the rule I will quote Robert Sumwalt and Robert Baron, “ The STERILE COCKPIT RULE is an FAA regulation requiring pilots to refrain from non-essential activities during critical phases of flight,(normally below 10,000). The FAA rule in 1981 afterwards reviewing a series of accidents that were caused by flight crews who were distracted from their flying duties by engaging in non-essential conversations and activities during critical phases of flight.” One such notable accident was Eastern flight 212 which crashed just short of the runway at charlotte/Douglas international airport in 1974 while conducting an instrument approach in dense fog. The NTSB concluded that the probable cause was a distraction due to idle chatter among the flight crew during the approach phase of flight. Lets now take a moment and talk about who is responsible? The PIC will ensure that all crewmembers and passengers are aware of this requirement by conducting a crew and passenger briefing prior to aircraft movement. The PIC will include in the brief that safety of flight items are ALWAYS appropriate to be brought to the immediate attention of the PIC. In additional writing on the subject we also find that it is written where Instructors will conduct training in this procedure as part of initial or recurring flight training. Now that you know a bit of information to understand the “Sterile cockpit concept” it will be up to each of you to decided what altitude to enforce this as a policy on your Aircraft since you are the PIC and there are no cockpit voice recorders in gliders. I will give you 2 reasons why it is a good idea to adopt this as a personal policy. The first is to pass your check ride with the FAA, and the second is to save your life. During the FAA exam it is a requirement for the examiner to try and engage you in a conversation wile you should be operating in a sterile environment. Don’t take the bait, in the aviation testing community this will result in what is known as “ A clean kill”. ( Pink slip, failure, or opportunity to schedule a re-check). As for reason number 2, I’m sure you will understand how this will make you a much more professional pilot and one who is admired by your peers. You will be in a much better position to deal with any abnormal which might occur and prevent it from becoming an accident if you are focused on the task as it develops and not being distracted. Now let’s be realistic about the rule itself and mentioning 10,000 feet as a normal reference point in the regulation. This was developed with power airplanes in mind. I do believe that we are using an altitude of 2000 (MSL) on the arrival and during check rides with the FAA as the minimum for performing any maneuvers other than normal planning for the approach and landing, along with enacting a “ Sterile cockpit” environment. For the sake of keeping it simple, I would suggest that you use the same 2000(MSL) on departure. Therefore at a very minimum I would like to think that we are sterile below 2000 feet while operating out of PGC. Remember this is just a minimum, you can always go with a higher altitude due to traffic, Wx., personal comfort level, and any other reasons that you can think of as to why you wouldn’t want to be distracted. Here are a few good examples of what would be considered essential conversation Vs. Non- essential. Certainly any teaching from an instructor to a student relative to that point in time could be considered essential. Along with that would be anyone in the airplane calling out traffic, discussing Wx. which might affect what we are doing, any abnormal feeling or sound from the aircraft. Also anyone in the airplane who is getting sick should bring this to the other pilot’s attention. These would be some examples of what should be discussed at the time the PIC is doing his briefing with his fellow pilot or passenger that might be going up for a ride. Some examples of issues that should be kept a quiet until we are out of the sterile environment might be, “Wow have you tried the burger at Zoto’s, it was great last night.” One last example would be a comment like, “Matt did you see that naked sky diver over there, we better head over to Penn Ridge and check it out!” Even though we are at a safe distance before the sighting. One last note, if you are doing a sterile cockpit briefing or violating this rule while flying a single place ship then you probably could use a conversation with one of the members who does some counseling as their day job. Remember in Aviation: “It’s cool to be STERILE” Craig Levine P.S. At the airline we had a 777 do a high speed reject at take-off with the FAA in the jump seat after the pilots cell phone was ringing, and was mistaken for a cockpit warning, this could have been catastrophic for the passengers and at the very least was a “clean kill” for the FAA. (Turn the CELL PHONE off, or at least on vibrate if you must). Right after reading Craig’s submission, I came across an article in the current issue of Sailplane & Gliding magazine. This is an excellent British publication. I’ve long believed that the Americans and British are one people separated by a common language, but the article made interesting reading, and is attached here. The basic premise is that you can improve flight safety by having two qualified pilots in the glider together, but only if you are careful about it. Unless you establish who is responsible for the flight, and work together without distracting each other, two pilots in the same cockpit can be a problem. Happy flying! Phil Klauder

1 thought on “Sterile Cockpit”

  1. Great article and a great concept that should be part of the PGC SOP’S for all students and rated pilots.

    Ed Poole

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