Cartoon: Sterile cockpit, from Chris Manno.
It seems everyone knows what "sterile cockpit" means and it has even entered the non-aviation lexicon; but what does it really mean? The Federal Aviation Regulations specify these type of rules for 14 CFR 121 and 135 operations, and you could make the argument 14 CFR 91 is covered by the "Careless and Reckless" regulation.
What it has come to mean, it seems, is that pilots can only do pilot stuff when below 10,000 feet. Most operators have further fleshed that out, as we have at Incognito Air. Note that we've made an addition to the rule to cover climbs and descents within 1,000 feet of level off. You should too.
I wrestle with this issue all the time. When you get comfortable flying with other pilots you learn to anticipate their thoughts and flying as a crew becomes almost effortless. It is easy to ignore sterile cockpit rules. But where do you draw the line? Not many people know the Colgan Air 3407 crash started with a violation of sterile cockpit rules and ended with a mishandled stall recovery.
What follows are quotes from the relevant regulatory documents, listed below, as well as my comments in blue.
(a) No certificate holder shall require, nor may any flight crewmember perform, any duties during a critical phase of flight except those duties required for the safe operation of the aircraft. Duties such as company required calls made for such non-safety related purposes as ordering galley supplies and confirming passenger connections, announcements made to passengers promoting the air carrier or pointing out sights of interest, and filling out company payroll and related records are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft.
(b) No flight crewmember may engage in, nor may any pilot in command permit, any activity during a critical phase of flight which could distract any flight crewmember from the performance of his or her duties or which could interfere in any way with the proper conduct of those duties. Activities such as eating meals, engaging in nonessential conversations within the cockpit and nonessential communications between the cabin and cockpit crews, and reading publications not related to the proper conduct of the flight are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft.
(c) For the purposes of this section, critical phases of flight includes all ground operations involving taxi, takeoff and landing, and all other flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet, except cruise flight.
Note: Taxi is defined as “movement of an airplane under its own power on the surface of an airport.”
If you operate at airports outlying major hubs you are probably used to getting an intermediate level off below 10,000 feet and being stuck there for ten minutes or so until you can climb further. Is this cruise flight? We've started to allow the climb checklist and other chores normally reserved for later in the climb to be done during these periods under 10,000 feet. What about non-flight related chatter? If you would have a hard time justifying it to an accident review board, maybe that talk can wait.
[14 CFR 91 §91.13 Careless or Reckless Operation]
(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.
(b) Aircraft operations other than for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft, other than for the purpose of air navigation, on any part of the surface of an airport used by aircraft for air commerce (including areas used by those aircraft for receiving or discharging persons or cargo), in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.
Crewmembers shall not participate in activities or conversation during critical phases of flight (taxi, takeoff, landing, when climbing or descending within 1,000 ft. of a level‐off altitude, and flight below 10,000 ft. AGL, except for cruise flight) that are other than those required for the safe conduct of the flight.
14 CFR 91, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, General Operating and Flight Rules, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation
14 CFR 121, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, Operating Requirements: Domestic, Flag, and Supplemental Operations, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation
14 CFR 135, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, Operating Requirements: Commuter and On Demand Operations and Rules Governing Persons on Board Such Aircraft, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation
Stevens, Bob, "There I was . . ." 25 Years, TAB Books, 1992, The Village Press