Julie Turkewitz and Rihard Perez-Pena THE NEW YOR TIMES
Regulators Cite a New Danger in the Skies: Selfies
February 3, 2015
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  • WATKINS, Colo. — In an age of digital distractions, the lethal risks of driving — or just crossing the street — while looking at a cellphone have been well-documented.

    Now comes a new peril from mixing transportation and obsession with devices: a fatal airplane crash most likely caused by selfies.

    When a light plane crashed near here on a cloudy night eight months ago, killing the two people aboard, it was probably because the pilot had been taking pictures of himself and his passenger, with a flash, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded.

    “It is likely that cellphone use during the accident flight distracted the pilot and contributed to the development of spatial disorientation and subsequent loss of control,” the safety board said in a report last week. Investigators found no sign that anything was wrong with the plane.

    “Distractions from personal devices are in all modes of transportation — we’re seeing that more and more,” said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the safety board. “But the self-photographs in an airplane, that’s something new for us.”

    The pilot, Amritpal Singh, 29, had used a GoPro camera to record some short flights he made with different passengers aboard his two-seat Cessna 150, to and from Front Range Airport here, east of Denver. He did not record the fatal trip on May 31, but did record one six-minute jaunt shortly before it.

    “The GoPro recordings revealed that the pilot and various passengers were taking self-photographs with their cellphones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb and flight in the traffic pattern,” the report said.

    Distracted driving is a factor in more than 3,000 traffic deaths annually in the United States, and about one-tenth of those involve cellphones, according to the Department of Transportation.

    Several train accidents have also been blamed on engineers paying attention to their phones, including the 2008 collision of two trains in Los Angeles that killed 25 people.

    So it seemed inevitable that the scourge of distraction by electronic devices would move into the skies. In 2009, the pilots of a Northwest Airlines flight from San Diego to Minneapolis were so busy using their personal laptops to figure out their work schedules that they overshot their destination by more than 100 miles.

    Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibited the use of personal electronic devices in airline cockpits, but some pilots have not given up the habit of posting on Instagram scenic pictures they took seven miles aloft.

    The ban does not apply to private pilots, who often use tablet computers, and even phones, running software for navigation, weather forecasts and flight planning.

    “It is of course the pilot’s primary and sole obligation to remain attentive to the flight,” said Steve Hedges, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. He said the group has made it a priority to train pilots on how to use electronic devices appropriately.

    At the small airfield here, the “selfie accident” was the topic during lunches and snack breaks, and as technicians tinkered with engines and hobby pilots inspected their planes.

    An airplane is most vulnerable during the kind of low-altitude, low-speed maneuvering Mr. Singh was doing, and the pilots here said they would never take a self-portrait in that time, when absolute attention is needed.
    “It’s the critical stage of flight,” said Bill Zempel, 49, a private pilot and airplane mechanic, taking a cookie break amid three single-engine planes. “That’s bad decision-making.”

    But he and a colleague, Kiki Winchester, admitted to the occasional self-portrait — taken, they said, once they are at a safe altitude and the plane is cruising. “We’ve got lots of pictures of ourselves in the planes,” said Ms. Winchester, 41.

    They said the modern pilot, like the modern driver, faces a growing number of distractions and technological temptations. There is the expanding number of screens inside the plane — the GPS device, the traffic collision avoidance system — and then there is the ever-more-present pressure to always be in touch.

    Ms. Winchester cited a urologist who frequents the airport and takes work calls via Bluetooth while in the air. (He cedes control to a co-pilot as he doles out advice.) And then there is that sneaking desire to show off, or at least to share good times with others.

    Mr. Singh was not well known at the airport. Others described him as a fairly new flyer who worked on the ground for an airline at Denver International Airport. The crash got little local attention, but drew more in India, because Mr. Singh’s passenger, Jatinder Singh, 31, was a keyboard player for a popular Punjabi singer, Manmohan Waris. Amritpal Singh, who lived near Denver, was reportedly assisting Mr. Waris’s band with its American tour. (It is not clear if the two men who died were related; Singh is a common name among followers of the Sikh religion.)

    The safety board report cited “instrument meteorological conditions” at the time of the last flight, meaning that visual cues were poor, so the pilot had to rely more on his instruments. Under such conditions, a plane can go into a deadly spin without the pilot’s being able to tell by looking out the window.

    The flight log book showed that Mr. Singh did not have enough recent experience under adverse conditions to be allowed to fly in such circumstances, or to fly at night with passengers, the report said.