US probes pilot texting in fatal helicopter crash

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US government is investigating pilot texting in the 2011 crash of an emergency medical helicopter that killed all four people onboard.

At a public hearing on Tuesday, officials of the National Transportation Safety Board revealed evidence suggesting that text messaging by the pilot contributed to the crash near Mosby, Missouri.

NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said the accident "juxtaposes old issues of pilot decision making with a 21st century twist: distractions from portable electronic devices." The independent government safety agency has blamed texting for road and rail accidents, including a 2008 California head-on train crash that killed 25 people.

In the case of the helicopter crash, the pilot was "both distracted and fatigued," said NTSB investigator Bill Bramble. But topping the safety issues involved in the crash was "distraction due to personal texting," the NTSB said.

The Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter, operated by LifeNet, was transporting a patient to a hospital in Liberty, Missouri, when it crashed on Aug 26, 2011 about half a kilometre short of where the pilot hoped to refuel.

The pilot, accompanied by a flight nurse and flight paramedic, had acknowledged he was running short of fuel and intended to refuel at Mosby.

Evidence suggested the pilot was distracted by text messaging during the period when the helicopter was being returned to service to pick up the patient, during both flights and between flights, the safety board said.

The "unnecessary, self-induced distraction" occurred when safety-critical activities were being performed on the ground and in the air, Mr Bramble said.

Among the preflight problems, the helicopter took off to pick up the patient with just one hour of fuel onboard, though the pilot reported two hours of fuel available.

Eventually the helicopter lost power because it had less than one litre of fuel remaining, according to the NTSB's initial findings.

The pilot also was fatigued, having slept a maximum of five hours the previous night due to personal activities.

Ms Hersman said the Mosby accident involved "perhaps the most crucial and time-honored aspect of safe flight: aeronautical decision making."