Do you have high-speed Internet access in the cockpit? Do you have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or do you leave this up to your better judgment? I am placing this in the "psychology" category because it pits our inner demons against operational safety. But that doesn't mean I'm against cockpit Internet usage. Far from it . . .
Photo: Just because it happens in flight doesn't mean it is "flight related."
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In the decade that has passed, I’ve heard from my more connected peers about pilots who quickly bring up social media accounts just a few minutes after the wheels are in the well. Some started out saying the Internet was for flight related purposes only, then they added aviation magazines – that’s flight related, isn’t it? – and then came an aviation flick or two. If “The Right Stuff” isn’t aviation related, what is? A contract pilot friend of mine tells me of a pilot who became so engrossed in a “flight related” video game, he was surprised by his aircraft’s top of descent chime. As the years went on, I felt my original decision was vindicated. But I also realized there were times when having that Internet connection would have saved me a last minute divert or could have rescued us from an hours long ATC delay.
So here we are, ten years later and we’re about to take delivery of another airplane. I was faced with the same question. The passengers still said no, and the system is still very expensive. But the capability has improved dramatically. Not only can we now rapidly download weather and flight plans, but we can also view real time video of weather radar. Most of the aviation world has turned to the Internet so we can now negotiate slot times, adjust ETAs, arrange destination support, get maintenance help, and do just about anything from the air that was once reserved for after landing. So my decision was different this time. We will have broadband Internet access in our next cockpit. The only thing left to do is come up with a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to avoid all those horror stories.
The U.S. Federal Regulations points only to 14 CFR 121.542(d), which says “no flight crewmember may use, nor may any pilot in command permit the use of, a personal wireless communications device (as defined in 49 U.S.C. 44732(d)) or laptop computer while at a flight crewmember duty station unless the purpose is directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications, in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.” This doesn’t apply to us in the non-121 world, but what about using a company “non-personal” device or something you could broadly classify as not a “communications device.”
The FAA clarifies the prohibition in Volume 79, No. 29 of the Federal Register (February 12, 2014): the final rule does not require an ‘‘ownership’’ test regarding the laptop computer or personal wireless communications device. It doesn’t matter who owns the device, they are covered by this rule. The Federal Register also retains a broad category of included devices because a list of specific devices would ignore the reality of evolving technology. This broad category includes, but is not limited to, devices such as cell phones, smartphones, personal digital assistants, tablets, e readers, some (but not all) gaming systems, iPods and MP3 players, as well as netbooks and notebook computers. The rule does not prohibit the use of personal wireless communications devices or laptop computers if the purpose is directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications and the use is in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.
It appears Part 121 crews are tightly restricted but the rest of us are not, unless our operators have come up with rules of their own. As a Part 91 operator, that responsibility fell on my shoulders. Advisory Circular 91.21-D, Use of Portable Electronic Devices Aboard Aircraft, guides Part 91 operators on how to ensure these devices can be used, but is silent on the subject of Internet access. Should I restrict my crews (and myself) or should that mystical “pilot judgment” be allowed to rule the day? When I don’t know what to do, my first step is to find out what everyone else is doing.
A Non-Scientific Poll
Most of the flight departments that I asked do rely on sound pilot judgment when deciding when the Internet can be accessed in the cockpit and for what purposes. “So, how’s that working out?” Many claim no problems, at least no problems worth noting. But many others admit things have gotten out of hand. Those flight departments with set SOPs usually recognize critical phases of flight and the nature of the Internet browsing as key factors in the when and what questions. But these aren’t the only factors.
Phases of flight. Most, but not all, SOPs recognized that Internet browsing should be limited to non-critical phases of flight. These phases were usually defined as whenever below 10,000 feet but sometimes included whenever the aircraft was in a climb or descent. While no canvassed operator included it, I thought I might consider oceanic versus non-oceanic as a deciding factor.
Permissible Uses. Everyone asked agreed that using the Internet for weather, air traffic delay, and other flight-related needs was acceptable. Some operators specified that flight-related meant pertaining to that particular flight, not anything with an aviation use. Many allowed crewmembers to check personal email but some restricted this to just a few minutes each hour. (One operator scheduled this so one pilot checks at the top of the hour, the other at the bottom.) Social media usage was specifically banned by some but not mentioned at all by others. A few specifically allowed pilots to use the Internet to do a brief check of the news and sports. Those without any kind of Internet policy admitted that some pilots would watch entire games or spend hours browsing on subjects completely unrelated to the flight in progress.
Most of the SOPs seem to deal with holding costs down more than reducing cockpit distractions. Streaming video is an obvious way to up the monthly charges but other, more insidious expenses often play as big a role. One company found that its passengers were allowing software updates and other downloads that didn’t need to be done from 35,000 feet. Their typical passenger was boarding with three Internet devices, each serving to choke the bandwidth, especially if an automatic company or device update was in progress. This in an SOP is certainly useful, but what I needed was an SOP for the cockpit crew.
The most complete SOP I found is a hybrid approach to Internet usage by pilots that gives wide latitude during non-critical phases of flight but permits only flight-related activities otherwise:
“On aircraft equipped with in-flight Internet, flight crews must not allow the Internet to become a distraction. Crews may connect their Internet-enabled devices and may use the Internet. Crew devices must not be utilized during any portion of a climb or descent unless they are being used for flight critical functions such as checking weather, NOTAMs, etc. In these situations, one crewmember must be heads up and dedicated to monitoring the aircraft. Playing games, watching movies or similar distracting activities are never authorized during climb, cruise or descent.”
When this policy was instituted a pilot asked about reading websites and was told only aviation related websites were permitted. The pilot noted that “It is okay to be distracted as long as you were reading an article about removing distractions in the cockpit.”
I came away from this investigation wondering why there haven’t been any aviation accidents due to this kind of “distracted driving” that is illegal on the highways of many states. I set out to prove a case against inflight Internet browsing using the many, many aviation accidents that surely happened as a result of pilots distracted by a phone, iPad, or other connected device.
What can go wrong?
The list of many, many accidents turned out to be one. There must be more, but this is the only one I could find. On August 26, 2011, a Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter, operating under Part 135, impacted terrain following an engine failure near the airport in Mosby, Missouri. The helicopter experienced fuel exhaustion because the pilot departed without ensuring that the helicopter was adequately fueled. The investigation determined that the pilot engaged in frequent personal texting, both before and during the accident flight. The pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic, and patient were killed.
You might want to include the Northwest Airlines A320 that overflew Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (KMSP), Minnesota on October 21, 2009. Early speculation was that both pilots fell asleep but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later determined that the pilots were using their laptop computers while discussing the airline’s crew scheduling process. The NTSB report concluded, “The computers not only restricted the pilots’ direct visual scan of all cockpit instruments but also further focused their attention on non-operational issues, contributing to a reduction in their monitoring activities, loss of situational awareness and lack of awareness of the passage of time.” They were only alerted to their situation when a flight attendant asked about their arrival time.
If there has only been one accident, perhaps there have been close calls. A scan of the thousands of Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) reports turns up only 243 incidents with the word "Internet" and of those only five involve distractions. And of those five, three involved air traffic control towers or centers. The two pilot reports were both of captains complaining about their first officers.
So there has only been one solitary accident from texting, cell phone use, or Internet access. Can we conclude the risk is negligible? Or have we just been lucky all these years?
Do you feel lucky?
Airline pilots have stricter rules than the rest of us when it comes to the use of Internet connected devices in the cockpit, and yet they have this problem too. We in business aviation tend to have smaller flight departments and there is a real risk that everyone becomes complacent at the same time. A few small infractions are accepted as "not that bad" and pretty soon everyone ignores the good intentions that they started with. I think a good way to judge a flight department's intentional and unintentional noncompliance with SOPs is an honest assessment from contract pilots. The problem, of course, is these pilots are reluctant to speak up against the offenders. But they can speak up to me . . .
"I was giving my approach briefing and taking extra care because the weather wasn't that good and we were flying an RNAV approach with higher than usual minimums. I looked over and the PIC was typing into his iPhone. I guess he saw the way I was looking and said he was listening, but he had to check his phone in case it was the boss."
- I know all about having to be ready to answer email and texts on a moment's notice and the consequences of failing to answer promptly can override one's judgment about the threat of not paying attention in the cockpit. I wonder what this PIC would have done if the text notification happened during a more critical phase of flight. Another reader answered my question . . .
"I had just moved the flap handle up and pressed the autopilot button as the PIC had asked. I got busy with the checklist (we still use the paper kind) and looked to my left to see the other pilot was typing on his cell phone. I didn't say anything. It seemed he always had that phone in his left hand while he programmed the autopilot with his right. I got used to hearing that metallic ping whenever he got a message and he never failed to immediately look at his phone. I wondered what he would do on short final. During our landing we sure as heck got one of those pings. I could see he was tempted, but he did the right thing and kept his concentration of flying the airplane. But, wouldn't you know it, as he taxied us to the hangar he read the message. I flew with this flight department one more time and the other pilot wasn't as bad, but he was bad. I decided the work wasn't worth it and have never flown with them again."
- I once gave a checkride from the jumpseat of a Global Express where my phone went off on short final. I was embarrassed, of course. I try very hard to remember to put my phone into "airplane mode" prior to engine start but sometimes I forget. Having a WiFi Internet connection in the cockpit means that precaution will no longer be good enough. You can say you can resist the temptation to pick up the phone when you get a call, but what about the audible tone of an incoming email or text? I can see the story now. There I was, a fire light and stack of CAS messages as long as my arm. And then, "you've got mail."
"I flew with these guys a few years before and remember this pilot had a portable DVD player and as soon as we coasted out he would get into a movie. He let me do all the position reports on HF. These guys didn't plot but I did manage to keep up with the master document. I flew with them again last week and found out they installed high speed Internet and now the big thing is online gaming. I don't know much about that myself but he was into it from just about level off to top of descent. At least with the DVD he would come up for air now and then. It was like I was solo."
- I'm not a video game person but was eye witness to its addictive nature with a teenage son. It appears to completely monopolize one's attention. I can imagine it can leave you solo when the other pilots is addicted to it like this.
"It was your normal Washington Dulles to Teterboro flights with a company I had flown with many times. These guys were usually pretty good and everyone was usually hyper vigilant on these short flights into the hornet's nest that is the New York City area. That's why I was surprised to see the captain prop his phone on the window ledge so he could catch the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. I've been to Teterboro a million times and there is nothing worse than having to fly the ILS to 6, circle to 1. I did what I could to get his attention back but he wasn't really in the game until I told him it was time to get the flaps out. We were doing fine until I realized that he didn't know we were circling! Of course he did fine, he had done this a hundred times. But I think he was embarrassed. As he should have been."
As the contract pilot noted about the pilot using the DVD reader, the problem of cockpit distractions has been with us for a very long time. When I was a copilot in the Boeing 707, it was standard practice for one of my crews to load up on crossword puzzles prior to our seven hour flight from Hawaii to Japan. That was a problem. But the problem has gotten worse. Our electronic distractions have a way of taking all of our attention and putting us into a "zone" that is harder to escape. It is also a problem that can creep up on us incrementally. If one day stealing a look at our email once in a while is okay, the next day it can become a part of our routine. Before long it becomes our standard practice. This has become business aviation's most pervasive normalization of deviance issue.
The Temptations of Cockpit Internet Access
I’ve noticed a common theme among many cockpit Internet users: once they’ve allowed a limited number of acceptable Internet uses they gradually expand the list so any limit becomes meaningless. I am worried about seeing this happen in my flight department because so many that I thought were untemptable have succumbed. It is a slippery slope:
- Email and text mail. It can’t hurt to check now and then, especially considering many of these are work related. A message from a family member might be urgent. Or there may be a job opening you’ve been working on. Opportunity, they say, only knocks once.
- News. Wouldn’t it be useful to know the President is showing up at or near your destination about the same time? There is a lot of news that can impact the success of your trip: floods, earthquakes, and forest fires to name just a few. Just because you are flying doesn’t mean your stock portfolio needs to suffer.
- Personal self-development. Some call it surfing and others call it browsing. Perhaps we can call it education. Why not spend those idle hours at altitude learning to be a better pilot? There are a ton of good aviation websites and “e-zines” ready for that very purpose. Who couldn’t benefit from the most recent bow hunting magazine?
- Entertainment. A happy pilot is a safe pilot, everyone knows. (If they don’t know that, they should.) As aviators we are professional multi-taskers and switching between a 4 DVD set of Godfather movies and your oceanic crossing post position plotting is child’s play for any seasoned international pilot.
I am a few months away from delivery of my new airplane, completed with Ka-band high-speed Internet. I am told we will be able to download a complete weather package with satellite imagery just as easily as we can stream the latest blockbuster hit from Hollywood. My initial attitude is to forbid anything remotely connected to entertainment or personal communications while in flight. But so many others have felt this way when starting out on the cockpit Information Superhighway and have given in. Will I be next?
The Advantages of Cockpit Internet Access
Photo: Gulfstream G500 pilot Steve Testerman updates Equal Time Point airport weather during an oceanic crossing, using an Internet connection and the ForeFlight application.
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The pilots of my flight department were starting to suspect that I had already made a decision, focusing only on the negative. On our last flight in Europe my cockpit partner wondered out loud how nice it would be to have real time weather for the continent. Flying from Florida to the Northeast he wondered about ground stops in the New York area. His hints were obvious, of course. But they had the intended effect. I needed to explore the pluses as well as the minuses.
Our flight department is paperless: each pilot has an iPad with an international cellular account and we don’t spare expenses when it comes to quality applications. There are a number of “apps” that we use during flight that would be even more useful if connected to the Internet. We also use several websites that are only accessible with an active Internet connection.
ARINCDirect. We do all of our flight planning through the Rockwell Collins application ARINCDirect. Their iPad application gives us access to updated winds, turbulence and icing reports, destination weather reports, updated NOTAMs, flight hazards, TFRs, and other reports we normally get before departure but never while en route. Having all of this real time can be a useful decision-making tool.
ForeFlight. Our favorite weather tool is the suite of imagery available in ForeFlight. Here you will find just about everything available in the U.S. government provided weather sites, but they seem to download more quickly and getting to the page you want is easier. Weather charts are available for most of the Americas, Europe, the Atlantic, and the Pacific.
MyRadar NOAA Weather Radar. If you are tracking a system along your flight path or at your destination, the MyRadar app is a good one to keep open because it updates quickly and the continuous loop gives a good sense of what the weather is doing and how it is moving.
Turbulence Forecast. This app is our “go to” source of U.S. turbulence information. The information is available in some of the other applications, but this is a quick way to get it if that is all you want.
We normally update these applications prior to engine start, so as to have the most recent information. We also use a number of Internet websites that are only available to us through our cellular connections, they are inaccessible inflight without an Internet connection. We frequently check www.faa.gov for airport status and delays and when things in the national airspace really get messy, we check www.faa.gov/ois/ for any ground stops or airspace flow programs.
I was starting to soften on the subject of Internet access, thinking maybe a very strict policy of only using a specified list of applications and websites might do the trick. On our way back from Europe last month I noticed the other pilot nod off once and I have to admit I felt the urge as well. We got a “Resume Normal Speed” message through data link, a first for us both, and that set off a mad scramble through our available resources to find out what it meant. Once we landed I quickly found – using the Internet – that the ICAO EUR/NAT office had just released a new Ops Bulletin allowing “Operations Without an Assigned Fixed Speed (OWAFS) in the NAT.” (If you haven’t heard of OWAFS, check out NAT OPS Bulletin 2019_001.)
Thinking about the flight, I realized that with an Internet connection we could have taken advantage of the resume normal speed message. But I also realized that our bout of sleepiness was instantly cured by the task at hand. Having something engaging to do solved any drowsiness for the remainder of the flight. I remember more than a few oceanic crossings were the urge to nod off was cured by having an interesting discussion topic come up. Perhaps there was something to be said for allowing other types of Internet access.
Our Cockpit Internet SOP
Photo: A Gulfstream G450 pilot accesses faa.gov website while inflight to check Teterboro delays.
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Our SOP needs to take advantage of the great situational awareness afforded by having Internet access in the cockpit, as well as the ability to keep pilots from nodding off on those long oceanic trips. But we need to avoid the distractions caused by keeping connected with email, text mail, sports, news, and all the other things trying to pull our brains out of the cockpit.
Like many other small flight departments, our pilots learn to adapt to each other and after a while there is a synergy. From the right seat we tend to anticipate what the left seater needs before he articulates it, but we allow the spoken words to happen any way because it removes all doubt. From the left seat we try to establish a rhythm to every phase of flight and can almost predict the checklist, but we allow for the checklist step by step because it reduces the possibility of error. We have been pretty good about avoiding complacency. But we are at risk. In fact, when it comes to Internet cockpit usage, we are probably at greater risk. Why?
We are a high tech flight department. We fly a high tech, computerized airplane. We equip each pilot with a top of the line iPad with a worldwide cellular account. We are paperless, so these iPads get a lot of use in the cockpit. And pretty soon these iPads will be connected to the Internet while in flight. Oh yes, there is one more thing. We like this stuff. We are all what I would call tech savvy.
All of this sounds pretty good, I think. But I think we could succumb to the temptations I've seen in so many other flight departments. You start off with the best of intentions and you end up with pilot's texting right after the gear is up or not paying attention to the radio while flying in the most densely packed airspace in the world. We need to have a good SOP and we need a way of checking up on ourselves against our good intentions.
Our team mulled this over and here is draft one.
- Two types of cockpit Internet usage are permitted: flight-related and non-flight related. Flight-related usage pertains to Internet access that has a direct bearing on the trip currently in progress. This category includes downloading weather products, making passenger arrangements, adjusting subsequent flight plans, or anything needed to assure the success of the current trip. Everything else, even if tied to company business or aviation, is considered non-flight related.
- No Internet access is permitted during critical phases of flight, which is defined as any flight time below 10,000 feet (except while in cruise flight with the autopilot engaged), or whenever within 1,000 feet of a level off even above 10,000 feet.
- Non-flight related Internet access is only permitted during flights with more than 1 hour in cruise flight, is limited to five minutes continuous time per pilot each hour.
- Any Internet access (flight or non-flight related) can only be made by one pilot at a time and will be treated as if that pilot was absent from the flight deck. Before “departing” the Pilot Flying (PF) will give a situational awareness briefing. For example: “The autopilot is engaged using long range navigation, we are in cruise condition talking to New York center. You are cleared off.” Upon completion, the PF will again brief the returning pilot. For example: “There have been no changes to aircraft configuration or navigation, but we are now talking to Boston Center and have been given a pilot’s discretion descent to Flight Level three two zero.”
- All Internet capable devices will be placed in “airplane mode” prior to engine start and will remain so until after engine shutdown. Audible notifications will be silenced for the duration of the flight. Pilots will ensure devices are not allowed to download software updates that may restrict Internet bandwidth needed by the passengers or flight-related cockpit use.
- Crews will add a discussion of cockpit distractions. to each day's post flight critique. The "What's the DEAL?" check can become the "Were we IDEAL?" check:
- I - Internet and other distractions: did we live up to our SOP?
- D - Departure: how did everything go from planning to wheels in the well?
- E - En route: how was the en route portion?
- A - Arrival: how did we handle the approach, landing, and shutdown?
- L - Logbook: was there anything to report as far as maintenance or other record keeping requirements?
So that decision is made, we have our first cockpit Internet SOP just in time to receive our new airplane. Not every flight department is this proactive, but even those that are seem to start with an Internet SOP only to abandon it because the lure of being connected is too great. I hope to avoid this and have come up with a way to give us a “reality check” after we’ve grown accustomed to our new connected cockpit lives. We'll add inflight Internet usage as a topic to our quarterly safety meetings. I’ve asked each pilot to come up with a list of safety of flight risks that we “promise” to avoid. I’ll put these in a sealed envelope and one year after delivery we’ll see how we made out. I am hoping those risks remain avoided. If not, we may have to rethink all of this.
I do get a fair amount of email, some of it really puts an exclamation point on things . . .
Oh yes. In addition of tech advances, we should consider our “next gen” pilots. At our airline, we’re in the midst of a 4-5 year hiring spree (about 300/year). In the past 2 years, we’ve had no fewer than 5 probationary pilots terminated because they couldn’t turn off their phones. Two pilots (separate events) did not complete OE due to their overwhelming desire to be connected to the outside world. (To me, I’m baffled that a young individual lacks that level of self control and is willing to give up a multi-million dollar career.)
There is a similar issue for ATC including the legacy of DVD players, especially during quiet hours, and also a generation of new controllers who are accustomed to being connected all the time.
In my Air Traffic Service Unit, there is wireless internet access in both the operational and non-operational areas. There are two corporate networks, one for company devices and one for “guests” including contractors and employees’ personal devices. There is also a wireless network operated by the ATC union – this pre-dates the corporate networks and continues operation with management approval. The operational area access is fairly recent and was introduced to support non-operational corporate applications including signing in, mandatory reading and similar – these operate on corporate devices (originally iPads, now Surface tablet/laptops) which are limited to the specified applications.
Use of personal devices in the operations area is not permitted. There are miniature lockers complete with charging cords available for anyone who wants to secure their device before entering the operations area. Except under very unusual conditions controllers get breaks at intervals (60-120 minutes) when they can leave the operations area and use their devices, so we don’t need the five minutes per hour rule, and often controllers are working single person sectors so it would not be appropriate to “connect” while working.
I am not aware of any enforcement actions regarding internet access, and I have not personally seen any violations.