By Mark Morris
The Kansas City Star
Texting contributed to a 2011 Northland helicopter crash that killed four people after a distracted pilot took off without enough fuel, accident investigators revealed Tuesday.
The medical helicopter crashed just before 7 p.m. Aug. 26, its fuel exhausted, about a mile short of Midwest National Air Center in Mosby, where pilot James Freudenberg had planned to refuel. His ultimate destination was Liberty Hospital about seven miles away.
In addition to Freudenberg, 34, from Rapid City, S.D., the crash killed flight nurse Randy Bever, 47, of Savannah, Mo., flight paramedic Chris Frakes, 36, also from Savannah, and patient Terry Tacoronte, 56, from the Denver area.
At a meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington D.C., on Tuesday, members voted to issue a warning to pilots to turn off non-essential electronic devices during flight and in critical pre-flight periods when aircraft are being prepared for operations.
“This investigation highlighted what is a growing concern across transportation: distraction and the myth of multitasking,” said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “When you are operating heavy machinery, whether it is a personal vehicle or an EMS helicopter, you need to be focused on the task at hand.
”During a morning-long presentation, investigators told the board that Freudenberg sent or received seven texts during critical periods: during pre-flight checks, when he could have recognized the low fuel problem, and while flying, when he could have made better decisions once he discovered it.
Investigators determined that he was exchanging texts about dinner plans with an off-duty co-worker.
During his 12-hour shift, Freudenberg sent or received 85 texts, investigators reported.
Families of two victims who watched online coverage of the NTSB hearing were “simply outraged” by what they heard, said Kansas City attorney Gary Robb, who recently negotiated settlements totaling $8 million on behalf of the Tacoronte and Bever families with the helicopter’s operator, Air Methods, an international air ambulance company based in Colorado.
“The workload demands of a helicopter pilot in flight are incompatible with texting,” Robb said. “I can’t imagine how a pilot could be texting, even if it were operationally related.”
In a written statement issued after the hearing, Air Methods President Mike Allen said the company has made a number of safety improvements since the accident.
Though pilot use of electronic devices during flight already was prohibited by company policy, the firm now has a “zero tolerance” policy for cell phone use during flight.
“We are prepared to work with the NTSB and the FAA to raise the bar to ensure the safety of those who fly with us,” Allen said.
Pilot fatigue also contributed to the accident, investigators found. By the time of the accident, Freudenberg had been on duty for about 12 hours, after getting five or fewer hours of sleep the night before.
He’d also spent a portion of his work day helping repair the helicopter, investigators found.
The flight began at the helicopter’s base in St. Joseph, after the pilot received a request to transfer a hospital patient from Harrison County Community Hospital in Bethany, Mo., to Liberty.
In the air, Freudenberg reported that he had two hours of fuel on board when, in fact, he had about an hour of fuel.
In Bethany, the pilot reported to his company’s communication center that he did not have enough fuel to make it to Liberty and asked for help finding a nearby refueling stop. They settled on the airport at Mosby, about two minutes flying time from Liberty.
Even during that conversation, a critical period in deciding whether to even continue the mission, Freudenberg continued to text, investigators noted.
Back in the air, Freudenberg reported that he had 45 minutes of fuel left. Investigators later learned that he had only about 30 minutes left.
Investigators said Air Methods needed better policies requiring the reporting of “abnormal fuel situations” to its communications center, which would allow others to determine whether a pilot’s decision to continue a mission was appropriate.
Investigators also determined that Freudenberg needed more practice in landing that model of helicopter safely after an engine failure at cruising speeds.
Colleagues and company records reported that Freudenberg was well-regarded and that his work that day was “uncharacteristic” of his past performance, investigators noted.
William Bramble, an expert on pilot performance, summed up the problems that fatal day. He said Freudenberg’s use of a cellphone “was an unnecessary, self-induced distraction that occurred when safety-critical activities were being performed in the air and on the ground.”