Pilot Selfies, apples, and oranges

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The NTSB recently release a “probable cause” report on the fatal crash of a Cessna 150 in Colorado last May. The agency determined the probable cause of the accident to be:

The pilot’s loss of control and subsequent aerodynamic stall due to spatial disorientation in night instrument meteorological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s distraction due to his cell phone use while maneuvering at low-altitude.

That last line is the first time the agency has identified cell phone use as a contributing factor to a fatal accident. They based that conclusion on footage from a GoPro camera, recorded on the penultimate flight a few minutes earlier, that showed “the pilot and various passengers…taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.”

The picture above is a selfie I took while flying from New Jersey to South Carolina last July. It’s one of only a few selfies I’ve taken while pilot in command, all of which were taken in VFR (visual flight rules) while the plane was on autopilot in level cruise flight and while in ATC radar contact with flight following. I don’t take pictures outside of those benign flying conditions because I recognize the risks of distraction to the important tasks that need to be accomplished to bring a flight to a safe conclusion. That said, I’m proud to be a pilot and would like to share at least part of my joy of flying. Further, I think the conditions I listed above are a good opportunity to snap a quick photo. They don’t always occur on every flight–I’d never dream of even thinking about my phone or a camera while flying in clouds, at night (even while not in clouds), in busy terminal airspace, on takeoff, on approach, or landing.

The pilot of the Cessna 150 reportedly departed, at night, into a low overcast layer of clouds, without an IFR flight plan (presumably without speaking to ATC). Even if he and/or his passenger weren’t taking pictures, this is a dangerous situation. Add in the distraction of pictures (according to the NTSB report, “using the camera’s flash function”), and it quite frankly is no surprise that this flight didn’t end well.

But don’t be persuaded that the FAA should prohibit photos taken in flight based on this evidence. Since this story hit the news, it reignited some debate regarding airline pilots posting pictures to Instagram. See this story for the “non-pilot” side of the argument. The story’s author, David Yanofsky, was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered last night, and the Cessna 150 crash was mentioned. The implication that the NTSB saying camera use contributed to the crash of the Cessna means that no pilot should be allowed to take photographs at any time is very weak. Comparing the pilot of a little plane making head-scratching decisions with the highly trained crew of a jet airliner is like comparing apples and oranges.

What is clear to me is that the FAA rules are simply not explicit enough–essentially the agency hasn’t kept pace with the technological advances that put high quality cameras inside cell phones and put those cell phones in all of our pockets. Are there situations where those cameras can be used safely during a flight? My opinion is “yes” but I don’t fly a jet airliner and I know flying can be a dangerous, unforgiving pursuit. This is a difficult question for the agency to answer, but I sincerely hope they at least compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

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