The pilot of a medical helicopter that crashed and killed everyone on board in August 2011 was texting with a friend while trying to deal with the dangerously low amount of fuel he had on board.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the accident found that the pilot, James Freudenbert, 34, had been talking with Patty Mooney, a friend from work, throughout the day of the accident. The results of the investigation were discussed at an NTSB hearing Tuesday morning.
Freudenbert, a former Army attack helicopter pilot, was working as a medical helicopter pilot in 2011. The day of the accident, he left St. Joseph, Missouri, with a flight nurse and a paramedic as passengers, to fly a patient from one hospital to another.
During the flight to the first hospital, Freudenbert told a dispatcher he had failed to refuel before leaving. He then picked up the patient, took off again, and said he had enough fuel to fly for 45 minutes.
30 minutes later, the helicopter crashed, likely from a lack of fuel. All four people on board were killed.
While in the air, Freudenbert sent Mooney three texts, and received four from her.
According to the policy of the company Freudenbert worked for, pilots are not allowed to use or even turn on cell phones during active flight operations.
At a National Transportation Safety Board hearing Tuesday morning, NTSB psychiatrist Dr. Bill Bramble pointed that out Freudenbert had “missed three opportunities to detect the low fuel conditions,” and should have aborted the flight once he realised he did not have adequate fuel.
Furthermore, he said he believed Freudenbert knew he had only 30 minutes worth of fuel before taking off for the second flight. He told the dispatcher he had 45 minutes worth, probably to avoid being caught violating rules that require pilots to carry more than enough fuel.
“It is very difficult to understand why he made that decision,” Bramble said at the hearing, “and it’s why we looked at some of these performance-shaping factors like fatigue and distraction.”
The psychiatrist pointed to the pilot’s texting as one cause of poor decision-making:
His last text message was sent 19 minutes before the accident. However, the pilot’s non-operational use of a PED [personal electronic device] was an unnecessary, self-induced distraction that occurred when safety critical activities were being performed in the air and on the ground.
Mooney told the NTSB she and Freudenbert exchanged text massages and phone calls throughout the day of the accident. She said they were “very close friends,” and were making plans to meet for dinner that night.
Other issues may have played a role: The NTSB found Freudenbert had slept poorly the night before the crash.
In an interview with officials, Freudenbert’s wife revealed that she was pregnant with the couple’s first child, and that his father had undergone a minor and successful heart operation a few days before the accident.
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