Comair Crash Exposes Rarely Enforced 'Sterile Cockpit' Rules

The crash of a commuter jet that took off from the wrong runway in Kentucky last summer has thrown a spotlight on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's "sterile cockpit" rule - a commonly violated ban on extra conversation in the cockpit.

The pilots of the Comair flight were heard talking about their dogs, their kids and job opportunities just before the plane went down in flames after struggling to get airborne from a runway that was too short. The crash killed 49 of the 50 people aboard in the United States' deadliest aviation disaster in five years.

Comair acknowledged that pilots Jeffrey Clay and James Polehinke violated sterile cockpit procedures after federal investigators released a transcript Wednesday of their conversation.

Investigators have not said what role, if any, their talk played in the Aug. 27 crash. But several other U.S. air disasters have been blamed, at least in part, on instances in which pilots were too busy talking about things other than flying.

Among them:

_ A 2004 crash that killed 13 of 15 people aboard a commuter airliner was blamed on the crew's nonstop joking and expletive-laden banter in the cockpit.

_ In 1988, a Delta Air Lines jet crashed 22 seconds after takeoff from Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport after the crew failed to set the wing flaps properly. Fourteen people were killed. In the minutes before takeoff, the crew members 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 one day make their cockpit conversation public.

The Federal Aviation Administration adopted the sterile cockpit rule in 1981. It was prompted in part by a 1974 crash in North Carolina that killed 71 people; the pilots were talking about politics while making their landing approach in bad weather.

The rule prohibits extraneous conversation during taxi, takeoff and landing and operations below 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).

Aviation insiders say the rule is often disobeyed.

"You can't really expect human beings to be robots," said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "A little bit of nonpertinent conversation, I'd say it happens quite frequently."

Moreover, the rule is not easily enforceable.

Contract rules prohibit the FAA and airline from releasing - or even preserving - the cockpit recordings unless there has been an accident. In fact, if not for the Comair crash, the tape of the chatter would have been erased before anyone ever listened to it.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time the cockpit voice recorder is never listened to," said Faron Collins, a Lexington control tower operator who worked the shift immediately after the crash.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said agency enforces the rule with regular ride-along inspections and anonymous incident reports that pilots can file about one another.

Polehinke, the sole survivor of the Kentucky crash, has not been stripped of his license. He lost a leg and suffered brain damage and has told relatives he remembers nothing about the accident.

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Associated Press writer Mark Barnett in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this story.


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