EYES ON THE SKY

A pilot’s personal camera is to blame for an airplane’s 4,400 foot plummet

It turns out the very presence of a pilot’s personal camera in the cockpit of a plane can be disastrous. In February 2014, a UK military plane plummeted 4,400ft (1.35 km) after its pilot’s Nikon camera became lodged into the controls. The Times of London reports that UK military personnel and a civil servant onboard are now suing the UK government (paywall) over the incident.

The UK Ministry of Defense wouldn’t comment on the incident citing an upcoming court marshal scheduled for February 2017 but a the final report of the incident investigation was published in March 2015.

That report said that the camera slid into a position that put pressure on the steering control of the airplane, and then forced that control forward as the pilot adjusted his seat forward. The movement eventually pitched the aircraft down 17 degrees, causing it to drop at a maximum of 260 feet (80 meters) per second. Some passengers and crew were thrown to the ceiling.

Reconstruction of how a camera could push the airplanes controls through adjusting the seat.
Reconstruction of how a camera could push the airplanes controls through adjusting the seat. (UK Military Aviation Authority)

One-hundred ninety-eight people were on board and 32 were identified to have minor physical injuries upon landing. No major injuries were identified.

Globally, there is a patchwork of rules governing the use of personal electronic devices in the cockpits of airplanes. In the US and much of Europe, aviation authorities prohibit pilots from using devices that can transmit information wirelessly to be used in a non-business capacity while on duty.

Despite this, a Quartz investigation in 2014 revealed that the flouting of these rules by pilots was widespread, with pilots posting their in-flight pictures—selfies included—to Instagram.

The UK government’s report found that the pilot took 77 pictures during the flight. The last came 95 seconds before the unintended descent began.

The UK does not have the same prohibitions on electronic devices, and military regulations are typically more lax than civilian rules. There is a long history of military aviators recording their operations through photographs and video. Typically military rules governing the use of personal electronic devices in the cockpit are issued on a operation by operation basis.

In February 2011, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (which has little jurisdiction over military operations) warned crew members (pdf pg. 7) of this very possibility. It advised crew members to stow personal items while flying after “pilot’s unsecured mobile phone migrat[ed] forward to a position where it jammed the rudder pedal controls under the cockpit floor area.”

A spokeswoman for the UK’s ministry of defense told Quartz that the Military Aviation Authority directs that any items taken into the cockpit be securely stowed.

Of course, any object of similar size likely could have gotten lodged in the controls. There is nothing inherently dangerous about the physical presence of cameras or wireless signals in cockpits. Rather, regulations around their use are intended to keep pilots alert and undistracted while on duty.

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