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Bloomberg News, Published April 08 2013

Fatal Missouri medical helicopter crash linked to texting while flying

WASHINGTON — An emergency medical helicopter pilot flying over Missouri was sending and receiving text messages before crashing in 2011, the first time such distractions have been implicated in a fatal commercial aviation accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which meets Tuesday to assign a cause for the accident that killed four people including a patient, documented seven texts sent and received by the pilot, according to agency records.

The Air Methods Corp. helicopter crashed in a field after running out of fuel, according to preliminary NTSB reports. Use of electronic devices by pilots during flight was prohibited by company rules, according to the reports.

“This is a classic example of dividing attention in a way that compromises safety,” David Strayer a psychology professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who has studied how personal electronic devices cause distraction.

This is the first time the NTSB has uncovered evidence of texting or mobile-phone use during a flight leading to a fatal accident, Kelly Nantel, an NTSB spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

In talks he gives on distracted driving, Strayer said he often asks people what they would think about an airline pilot phoning to make dinner reservations while approaching an airport.

“Curiously enough, here is a situation in which that ludicrous example occurred,” Strayer said. “Now you've got it coming full circle.”

The crash on Aug. 26, 2011, in Mosby, Mo., killed Terry Tacoronte, a patient who was being flown from one hospital to another. Pilot James Freudenbert, Randy Bever, a flight nurse, and Chris Frakes, a paramedic, also died. The helicopter was being operated under the name LifeNet.

Freudenbert received four texts, three of them from a friend at work, and sent three others during the flight, according to NTSB records.

Freudenbert, 34, who told a coworker he hadn't slept well the night before, failed to refuel the helicopter before flying to a hospital in Bethany, Mo., according to NTSB records.

He realized his mistake after landing at the hospital and discussed where to get more fuel with a company dispatcher. He was headed to Midwest National Air Center Airport in Mosby when the helicopter went down.