Why Pilots Aren't Allowed to Make Small Talk in the Cockpit Below 10,000 Feet

Why Pilots Aren't Allowed to Make Small Talk in the Cockpit Below 10,000 Feet

It's really not the time for distractions.

By Karen Gardiner

Now that you're situated in the airplane and it's taken off — it's time to kick back and relax. If you're a passenger, that is. 

Apart from the moments when they are enjoying some well-deserved rest, pilots are (understandably) required to be fully focused on the important job at hand. And that laser-sharp focus is never more important than when flying at less than 10,000 feet — during ascent and descent. That's why aviation authorities implement something called the Sterile Cockpit Rule. 

This regulation states that pilots (and crew) must focus on only essential operational activities, and are prohibited from eating meals, reading nonessential work-related materials and "engaging in nonessential conversations within the cockpit and nonessential communications between the cabin and cockpit crew." In short, that means there must be absolutely no potentially distracting chit-chat below 10,000 feet.

The Sterile Cockpit Rule was first implemented in 1974 following the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, in which 72 people died when the plane crashed into a hillside close to Charlotte. Crash investigators determined that the cause of the crash was in part due to “the flight crew’s lack of altitude awareness at critical points during the approach due to poor cockpit discipline."

The "poor discipline" the investigators referred to was that the pilots were engaging in small talk. The National Transportation Safety Board found that, while landing, the captain and first officer were having a "nonpertinent," conversation, discussing subjects "ranging from politics to used cars." They were also trying to pick out Carowinds amusement park through the dense fog upon approach.

"Pointing out sights of interest" is one of the specifically proscribed activities according to the Sterile Cockpit Rule, which led to some debate a few years ago about whether or not one of America's great flight heroes broke the rule.

Less than a minute before US Airways Flight 1549 was struck by a flock of Canada Geese, causing it to lose engine power and forcing Captain "Sully" Sullenberger to ditch the plane in the Hudson, Sully had remarked "what a fine view of the Hudson today." The consensus, however, is that remarking on the view of the Hudson is not the same as the forbidden pointing out of sights of interest.

At Quora, a pilot and air traffic controller states that "comments about how the airplane is handling, the view outside, and other environmental factors are generally considered pertinent to the flight.... Even in an accident investigation, no one is going to consider a pilot’s comments about his view out the window to be an issue. In fact, they would say that it’s a good indication that the pilot is engaged."

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