New Zealand Crash And, Again, Questions About Cellphone Use

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The old debate over the effect of cellphones on airplanes is back in play, as investigators in New Zealand face questions about a fatal accident last June, during which a cellphone was apparently turned on in the cockpit. Eight people died when a Piper Chieftain crashed just over a mile from the runway at Christchurch Aerodrome. The official report by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC), released last month, concluded that the pilot became distracted at a critical stage in the ILS approach, conducted during light rain, a low overcast, and darkness. But the Aviation Industry Association (AIA) said the possible effect of the cellphone was not adequately investigated. The TAIC report does conclude that "operators [need] to have practical procedures for observing cellphone rules during flight," but does not cite the cellphone as a factor in the crash. The report says the plane probably would have landed safely if the autopilot was engaged, but for unknown reasons the pilot was flying the approach manually.

The crash report found that "The pilot's own cellphone was operating during the last three minutes of the flight, and could have interfered with his glide slope indication on the ILS approach." The cellphone seems to have been inadvertently in use, having connected via speed-dial to the pilot's home voicemail. Yet the TAIC report continues, "The aircraft's continued descent below the minimum altitude could not have resulted from electronic interference of any kind. ... The pilot's altimeter was correctly set and displayed correct altitude information throughout the approach." The TAIC notes that "The use of cellphones on board aircraft has been identified from numerous occurrence reports overseas as a cause of random interference to the proper functioning of aircraft avionics such as navigation equipment and autopilots. New Zealand Civil Aviation Rule part 91.7(a) stated: No person may operate, nor may any operator or pilot-in-command of an aircraft allow the operation of, any cellphone or other portable electronic device that is designed to transmit electromagnetic energy, on any aircraft while that aircraft is operating under IFR." The pilot reportedly told the passengers that it was OK to use their cellphones during the flight, and was observed by the two survivors of the crash to have used his own cellphone en route. The AIA also questioned whether the possibility of wake turbulence was adequately explored. The Chieftain was following a Boeing 737 on final. The TAIC concluded that separation was adequate and wake turbulence was not a factor.