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Cell phone in cockpit distracted Jetstar pilot, led to 'missed approach,' report finds

You know that pre-flight announcement urging you to shut down your cell phone before takeoff? Perhaps it should be mandatory in the cockpit as well.

It turns out a pilot’s chiming phone onboard a Jetstar flight was part of a chain of events that ultimately forced the crew to execute a “missed approach” before landing on the second try, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found in a report released on Thursday.

The crew was distracted “to the point where their situation awareness was lost, decision making was affected and inter-crew communication degraded,” the report found.

The incident happened on May 27, 2010, as Jetstar flight JQ57 was preparing to land at Singapore Changi International Airport after a long journey from Australia’s Northern Territory. Jetstar is a low-cost carrier that operates across Australia, New Zealand and the Asia Pacific.

As the aircraft descended below 2,500 feet, “the crew heard noises associated with incoming text messages on the captain’s mobile phone,” the investigation found. When the first officer tried to get the captain’s attention, he saw “the captain preoccupied with his mobile phone,” according to the report.

The pilot, who has more than 13,400 hours of flying experience, later explained that he was trying to turn off his cell phone at the time. He told investigators that he had simply forgotten to turn it off before takeoff and so the device began receiving messages as the plane got close to Singapore.

Phone records showed the captain did not send or answer any texts during the approach.

When the plane descended below 1,000 feet, the first officer felt “something was not quite right,” according to the report.

Then, at 720 feet, he noticed a red light and a message that indicated the landing gear had not been lowered.

After more confusion, the crew decided that the flight was not fully configured for landing and began a go-around. The plane landed safely and without incident shortly afterwards, Jetstar said, adding that cancelled landings “happen every day at airports around the world.”

This likely wasn’t the first or the last time that a crew member was distracted by an electronic device, said Todd Curtis, a former Boeing engineer and founder of AirSafe.com.

“Anyone who carries a cell phone, even a pilot, runs a risk of not turning it off,” Curtis said. “[However,] this captain made the judgment call of dealing with his cell phone.”

That would go against a concept called “sterile cockpit” — a period of time from 10,000 feet to the ground, whether a pilot is taking off or landing — when the crew cuts out all non-essential conversations and activities, Curtis said.

In a statement, the airline noted that the report made no findings against Jetstar, nor did it find any fault with Jetstar’s policies or procedures. "The safety of the aircraft was never compromised," the airline added.

“In the case of JQ57, pilot distraction meant all the landing checklist items weren’t completed before the aircraft passed an altitude of 500 feet, at which point a go-around was required under our operating procedures,” said Capt. Mark Rindfleish, Jetstar’s chief pilot, in a statement.

“Human factors, like distraction, are why airlines have so many procedural safeguards built into how they fly.”

Jetstar says it will make the flight a case study in its training on the potential for cockpit distraction.

To prevent any more such incidents, the airline has added an item to the takeoff checklist to remind pilots to make sure their cell phones are switched off.

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