Selfies caused a deadly plane crash

The crash site in Watkins, Colorado.
The crash site in Watkins, Colorado.
Image: Adams County Sheriff's Office
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Selfies were the cause of a deadly plane crash in the United States last year, government investigators have concluded.

Amritpal Singh was likely taking photos of himself while flying a small airplane at night near Denver, Colorado, when he became disoriented by the flash of his cellphone, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The plane plunged into the ground, killing Singh and his passenger, Jatinder Singh, an Indian musician, shortly after midnight on May 31, 2014.

It’s the first time the NTSB has blamed a plane crash on the pilot taking photos. Cockpit photography is increasingly popular among pilots, some of whom have large social media followings for their photos from the air. In December, Quartz detailed the trend among commercial airline pilots, who are generally prohibited from using their phones while flying. Many pilots find the practice harmless, but safety experts say even a few moments of distraction in the cockpit can be dangerous.

One airline pilot featured in Quartz’s investigation posted a photo of himself to Instagram with the caption, “About to land this plane but first, #lmtas,” shorthand for “let me take a selfie.”

As a pilot flying a Cessna 150K aircraft under general aviation rules, Singh was not violating Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations by taking photos in the cockpit. Nevertheless, investigators concluded in their report, ”It is likely that cell phone use during the accident flight distracted the pilot and contributed to the development of spatial disorientation and subsequent loss of control.”

The investigators also noted that Singh hadn’t been flying frequently enough to carry passengers at night or in the weather conditions present at the time of the flight, according to his logbook.

Singh had a GoPro camera with him on the plane, another common trend among pilots. The camera and memory card survived the crash, and investigators observed Singh and his passengers on flights immediately before the one that crashed ”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.” There was no GoPro recording during the short flight that crashed.