By Dan Whitcomb
(Reuters) - The pilot of a medical helicopter that crashed in Missouri in 2011, killing all four people on board, was distracted by personal text messages that day and during the fatal flight, federal safety investigators said on Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the text messages were likely a contributing factor in the crash of the medical air ambulance and prompted officials to recommend new prohibitions on the use of portable electronic devices by flight crew members.
"This investigation highlighted what is a growing concern across transportation - distraction and the myth of multi-tasking," Deborah Hersman, head of the NTSB, said in a statement released with the board's report.
"When operating heavy machinery, whether it's a personal vehicle or an emergency medical services helicopter, the focus must be on the task at hand: safe transportation," Hersman said.
The Eurostar AS350 helicopter crashed near an airport in Mosby, Missouri, in August 2011 after running out of fuel while transporting a patient from one hospital to another about 60 miles away. Killed were the pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic and the patient.
The NTSB found that the probable causes of the accident were the pilot's decision to take off despite critically low fuel levels, along with his inability to perform a critical flight maneuver after the engine flameout that followed when the helicopter ran out of fuel.
But the board said cell phone records showed that the pilot sent and received multiple personal text messages throughout the day, including while the helicopter was in flight and during a phone call to a communication specialist about whether to undertake the mission.
The NTSB said there was no evidence the pilot was texting at the time that the engine failed, but said that doing so at all while he was airborne violated his company's cell phone use policy.
Among the nine recommendations that the NTSB made were that flight crew members be prohibited from using portable electronic devices while at a duty station on the flight deck while the aircraft was being operated.
The board also recommended to the Federal Aviation Administration that pilot training programs incorporate training on the dangers of distraction by portable electronic devices.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Doina Chiacu)