Critical Conversations: The crash of Eastern Airlines flight 212

Admiral Cloudberg
23 min readAug 5, 2023
An aerial view of the aftermath of the crash of Eastern Airlines flight 212. (Don Sturkey Photographic Materials North Carolina Collection)

On the 11th of September 1974, an Eastern Airlines DC-9 crashed short of the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, claiming the lives of 72 people. Only ten survived the heavy impact and ensuing inferno, which consumed the plane so fast that passengers burned where they sat. But why had the jet seemingly flown straight into the ground six kilometers before the runway, without the slightest hint from the crew that there was anything wrong? Although heavy fog covered the accident site, the plane entered it only seconds before impact, so the mistake must have happened earlier. In fact, the pilots appeared unaware of their altitude throughout the descent, and in post-crash interviews, the surviving First Officer reported believing that he was higher. In the end, it was a simple mistake that set them on course for disaster, perhaps a moment of confusion between two numbers and a split-second misreading of the altimeter. But pervading this series of banal but deadly errors was a casual cockpit atmosphere, as the pilots missed critical callouts and cross-checks in favor of idle chit-chat. Should Nixon be pardoned? Was that the Carowinds amusement park tower poking out of the fog? The pilots discussed these in the minutes before the crash, but sadly, not their altitude — a crucial mistake that would ultimately give rise to the “sterile cockpit rule,” a policy that governs the behavior of every airline pilot today.

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N8984E, the aircraft involved in the accident. (Bob Garrard)

The story began with such an ordinary flight — a short hop from Charleston, South Carolina to Charlotte, North Carolina, on board a then-ubiquitous McDonnell Douglas DC-9, operated by Eastern Airlines, once one of America’s big four passenger air carriers. Many introductions to these articles require a few paragraphs of background, but here, none is needed — Eastern Airlines flight 212 was simply another of the thousands of domestic flights that crisscross the United States every day, its familiarity diminished only by the passage of some 50 years.

A total of 78 passengers were booked on the morning flight on September 11th, 1974, including several major figures from the Charleston area. There were a number of staff from various Charleston newspapers on board, as well as a news editor working under famed television journalist Walter Cronkite, and US Navy Rear Admiral Charles Cummings, the acting commandant of the 6th Naval District. Also on board were the father and two brothers of future comedian Stephen Colbert, then 10 years old, who were on their way to boarding school in Connecticut.

The flight also featured a standard roster of four crewmembers, including two flight attendants, one at the front and one at the rear, as well as two pilots, consisting of 49-year-old Captain James Reeves and 36-year-old First Officer James Daniels Jr. Both had thousands of hours flying DC-9s, and there was no reason to believe that they were anything other than fully capable of handling the routine flight to Charlotte.

The approach chart for runway 36 used by the Eastern Airlines crew. (NTSB)

At 7:00 a.m. on the dot, flight 212 departed Charleston, climbing to its cruising altitude for the relatively brief 35-minute flight. En route over North Carolina, the pilots listened to the Automated Terminal Information Service (ATIS) broadcast, an automated weather update, which informed them that the weather at Douglas Municipal Airport in Charlotte consisted of broken clouds at 4,000 feet with a surface visibility of 1.5 nautical miles in ground fog. That meant they would need to use an instrument approach at Charlotte, even though visibility promised to be good until shortly before landing.

The approach to be used by flight 212 was a VOR/DME approach to runway 36 from the south. The procedure called for the crew to navigate to the runway by following a specified radial of a Very high frequency Omnidirectional Range, or VOR, located at the airport, while descending to certain altitudes at certain distances from the runway, as indicated by the airport’s Distance Measuring Equipment, or DME. After reaching the final approach fix, or FAF, located at a point 5.5 nautical miles from the runway known as the “Ross intersection,” the crew were to descend to the minimum descent altitude (MDA) of 1,120 feet, or 394 feet above the runway elevation. From there, further descent was permitted only if the pilots spotted the runway before reaching the designated missed approach point.

A horizontal map of flight 212’s flight path. I’ve highlighted the Ross intersection and the Carowinds tower to make them easier to see. (NTSB)

Although VOR approaches are not all that common in US airline operations today, the approach would have been routine in 1974, and the pilots would not have expected it to present any trouble. In fact, as they descended through 7,000 feet, the cockpit voice recorder captured them discussing something else entirely: the Watergate affair, which had culminated in the resignation of President Nixon just over a month prior.

“Right, I heard this morning the news while I was — might stop proceedings against impeachment,” Captain Reeves said, as First Officer Daniels flew the plane. “Because you can’t have a goddamn pardon for Nixon and the Watergate people,” he continued. “Old Ford’s beginning to take some of his hard knocks.”

At that moment, the controller called the flight and said, “Eastern two twelve, turn left heading two four zero.”

“Two four zero, Eastern two twelve, we’re at six,” Captain Reeves read back, reporting their altitude.

“Eastern two twelve,” the controller acknowledged.

“Alright, down to four,” Reeves reported over the radio, indicating his intention to continue descending to their previously cleared altitude of 4,000 feet.

First Officer Daniels began turning the plane to the left, onto a southwesterly heading of 240 degrees. This turn was the first of two that would take them through a Z-shaped jog to the west to align with runway 36, as shown on the map above. At the same time, he began slowing down their approach speed, which had ballooned well above the nominal value, so he called out, “Fifteen degrees please,” asking Captain Reeves to extend the flaps.

“Eastern two twelve, contact Charlotte approach one one niner point zero,” the controller said, handing the flight over to a new frequency.

“One nineteen nothing, good day,” said Reeves, switching to a frequency of 119.0. Keying his mic again, he now said, “Charlotte approach, Eastern two twelve, descending to four, we’re turning to two forty.”

“Eastern two twelve, continue heading two four zero, descend and maintain three thousand,’ the approach controller replied.

“All right, on down to three,” Reeves read back.

Part 1 of flight 212’s vertical profile. (NTSB)

At that point, First Officer Daniels chimed in on the political discussion, with a particular focus on the ongoing oil crisis. “One thing that kills me is the goddamned mess and all crap that’s going on now,” he said. “We should be taking some definite direction to save this goddamn country. Arabs are taking over every damn thing, they bought — hell, they got so much real estate, so much land, they bought an island for seventeen million dollars off Carolina, they [unintelligible] the stock market, and the fucking Swiss are going to sink our fucking money, gold over there.”

“Okay,” said Captain Reeves. “Yes sir, boy, they got the money don’t they, they got so damn much money.”

“That stuff is coming in at such a fantastic rate,” Daniels continued. “Yeah, I think, hell, if we don’t do something by 1980, they’ll own the world.”

“They owned it all at one time,” Reeves pointed out.

“That’s right,” said Daniels. “I’ll be willing to go back to one — to one car, any, ah — a lot of other restrictions if we can get something going.”

“Yeah,” said Reeves.

“And [illegible] get rid of my little one money,” Daniels said.

“Be willing to do that,” Reeves said. “Just as well. I’m car poor, I got, well I just got two now. I just gave one to my boy, but I’m buying this new one.”

At that moment, with the flight approaching the second bend in the Z-curve, the controller called them and said, “Eastern two twelve, turn right, heading three five zero, cleared VOR three six approach. You’re six miles south of Ross intersection.”

“Okay, three fifty, cleared for approach,” Reeves read back, as Daniels turned the plane inbound toward runway 36.

Shortly afterward, the flight reached 3,000 feet, but kept descending, since the clearance for approach had given them permission to descend all the way to the MDA. Now, instead of following the controller’s instructions, they were to determine their altitude based on their distance from the runway, according to the approach chart. The next major gate was the Ross intersection, the final approach fix (FAF), where their chart indicated they should be at 1,800 feet, or 1,074 feet above the runway level.

Carowinds amusement park with the Carolina SkyTower pictured, center right. (Martin Lewison)

But before any further discussion of the approach could take place, Captain Reeves spotted a tower sticking out of the layer of ground fog, which had just come into view as they turned toward the airport. “There’s Carowinds, I think that’s what that is,” he said.

Near the approach path into Charlotte lay the Carowinds amusement park, which had opened the previous year. Among the most recognizable features at Carowinds was the “Carolina SkyTower,” a 262-foot (80-meter) gyro tower featuring a rotating donut-shaped observation deck that ascended up and down the tower’s central column. As the tallest thing for miles around, the Carolina SkyTower, known colloquially as the Carowinds tower, was a familiar landmark for pilots, and the sight of its solitary tip poking out of the fog must have been rather fascinating to the crew of flight 212.

“Eastern two twelve, you resume normal speed, tower one eighteen one,” the approach controller said, rescinding an earlier speed restriction and handing the flight off to the tower for landing clearance.

“One eighteen one, two twelve, good day,” said Reeves. Switching to the new frequency, he then said, “Hello, ah, Charlotte tower, it’s Eastern two twelve, we’re about five miles south of Ross.”

“Eastern two twelve, continue, number two,” the tower said, informing them that they were second in line for landing.

Moments later, Captain Reeves must have glanced at his approach chart to check the details of the final approach fix, because he said, “Five point five, eighteen hundred,” reading out the distance from the runway and crossing height for the Ross intersection.

Seconds after that, however, Reeves again commented, “Carowinds,” noting the tower for a second time.

“Ah, that tower — would that tower be it or not?” Daniels asked.

“No I — [unintelligible] Carowinds, I don’t think it is,” Reeves said, now second-guessing himself. “We’re too far in, Carowinds is in back of us.”

“I believe it is,” said Daniels.

Reeves then changed his mind again. “By god, that looks like it, you know, it’s [unintelligible] Carowinds. Yeah, that’s the tower.”

At almost that exact moment, without comment or fanfare, flight 212 descended below 1,800 feet, the prescribed minimum crossing altitude for the Ross intersection, even though they still had nearly four nautical miles to go. Captain Reeves should have anticipated the need to level off, but he seemed to be focused on the Carowinds tower, and now he had roped First Officer Daniels into the distraction as well. And so, even as the plane continued to descend, the discussion of Carowinds carried on.

“Gear down please, before landing,” Daniels said, trying to get things back on track by calling for the before landing checklist.

“That’s what that is,” Reeves said, continuing to discuss the Carowinds tower, even as he pulled the lever to extend the landing gear.

Seconds later, a continuous tone began to sound from the plane’s primitive terrain proximity warning system, informing them that they were 1,000 feet above the ground. But the warning sounded at 1,000 feet on every single flight, so it had become little more than background noise. Someone immediately reached up and pressed the button to silence it, apparently without appreciating the significance of the fact that they were not supposed to descend below 1,074 feet above the runway elevation until after passing the Ross intersection.

“Carowinds,” someone again said.

“That’s Carowinds tower,” Reeves repeated. Then, finally turning his attention back to the checklist, he armed the spoilers and adjusted the radar, still unaware that they were descending dangerously low.

Part 2 of flight 212’s vertical profile.

At around that point, First Officer Daniels raised the nose to rein in their speed, which was still 188 knots, far above the nominal figure of 122 knots for final approach. As the plane pitched up, their speed began to decrease, and their rate of descent also mellowed, reducing from 900 to 300 feet per minute.

“Three ninety four,” Captain Reeves said, recalling the minimum descent altitude for the approach in terms of height above the runway elevation. “Got them. There’s ah, Ross, now we can go on down,” he added, seeing that they had nearly reached the Ross intersection. After crossing it, they would be able to descend to the MDA of 394 feet.

“How about fifty degrees, please,” said Daniels, asking for the flaps to be fully extended. Given their speed, this was premature — they had only slowed to 168 knots, which was still above the 160-knot maximum speed for their current setting of flaps 15, let alone flaps 50. But no one seemed to notice or care, so Captain Reeves immediately slipped the flap lever into its lowest detent, calling out, “Fifty.”

At that precise moment, flight 212 crossed the Ross intersection at an altitude of 1,350 feet, some 450 feet below the prescribed crossing altitude and only 624 feet above the runway. Again, no one seemed to notice. In fact, seconds later, Daniels increased their descent rate from 300 to 800 feet per minute, a choice that made sense only if he was unaware of their height. With five nautical miles still to go, such a descent rate would in fact cause them crash into the ground well short of the runway, a danger which was now moments away.

Still, the crew, seemingly oblivious to their predicament, continued blithely into the jaws of disaster. “Ah, Eastern two twelve, by Ross,” Reeves reported to the tower, even as they descended straight through the minimum descent altitude, where Reeves was to make a callout and Daniels was to level off.

“Eastern two twelve, clear to land three six,” the controller replied. In 1974, low altitude alerts had not yet been installed in America’s control towers, so the controller was also unaware of the danger.

Now flying below the MDA, the plane entered the ground fog, enveloping the cockpit in featureless gray. Perplexingly, First Officer Daniels then increased their descent rate even more.

“Yeah, we’re all ready,” said Captain Reeves, announcing the end of the before landing checklist. “All we got to do is find the airport.”

An aerial view of the crash site best shows the extent of the devastation. (on Sturkey Photographic Materials North Carolina Collection)

Unfortunately, they would never find it. Two seconds later, First Officer Daniels spotted the ground and let loose a panicked shout, but it was far too late to react. Still enveloped in dense fog, the DC-9 clipped several trees, then crashed to earth left-wing-down in a field, sliding across the ground at considerable speed. The field ran out a split second later, however, and the plane crashed headlong into a forest, sending tree trunks ripping through the wings and fuselage. The fuel tanks disintegrated, then ignited, sending flames ripping through the still-moving wreckage, engulfing passengers where they sat, until at last the shattered airliner ground to a halt amid the trees, surrounded by a raging fire.

For many of those on board, there was never any hope of survival. A total of 32 people died almost instantly on impact, while the flames that consumed the cabin took the lives of dozens of others, many of whom never even had a chance to leave their seats. At the back of the plane, some passengers found that they had been ejected during the impact, sparing them the worst of the fire, while a few others managed to escape through breaks in the fuselage, despite heavy flames that left many of them badly burned. The only area spared from fire was the cockpit and forward galley, where flight attendant Collette Watson found that she had survived the crash with only superficial injuries. Of the passenger cabin behind her, however, little remained — the only person to emerge from the smoke and fire was a 45-year-old business class passenger, who entered the cockpit with Watson in attempt to escape. There they found that Captain Reeves had been mortally wounded on impact — Watson would later recall hearing his death rattle — but First Officer Daniels had survived with serious injuries to both legs. Together, the three survivors made their exit through a cockpit window, escaping in the nick of time.

Stephen Colbert’s father James, and brothers Peter and Paul, who all perished in the crash. (Stephen Colbert)

Although bystanders and first responders rushed to the scene, the passenger cabin was totally consumed in flames by the time they arrived, and only those outside the plane could be helped. Rescuers ultimately took 13 people to hospital, all seriously injured aside from Collette Watson, but the prognosis for some was grim. Two passengers, including a 17-year-old girl, had been burned across 90% of their bodies, a total that is usually unsurvivable, and despite doctors’ best efforts to save them, these victims ultimately died in hospital — one after two days, the girl after six, and a third injured passenger after 29. In total, only 10 people survived, while 72 died, including all the media personnel, the US Navy Rear Admiral, and the father and brothers of Stephen Colbert.

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Hello! If you’re hearing this being read by an AI voiceover on YouTube, you’re watching stolen content! This article was written by Kyra Dempsey, a.k.a. Admiral Cloudberg, on August 5, 2023, and no permission was given for reproduction. This message is a test to see if the thief is actually reading the articles before stealing them.

The tail section was one of the few parts of the DC-9 that remained unburnt. (Evening Post Publishing Company)

Within hours, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Charlotte, where they faced a sight that had become all too common: the remains of an airliner that had flown into terrain short of the runway. It was not the first time that year that the NTSB had responded to such a crash, and tragically it would not be the last either, making flight 212 just one of several tragedies that ultimately led to the agency’s successful demand for ground proximity warning systems on all US airliners in 1975. But the most direct legacy of the accident in Charlotte would lie elsewhere, with the sequence of events outlined in its crash-protected flight recorders.

The basic error leading to the disaster was banally simple: despite clear conditions above the fog and properly working instruments, the pilots descended too early and crashed into the ground. They should have leveled off at 1,800 feet until they reached the final approach fix at the Ross intersection, but they did not, and no one appeared to realize until it was far too late.

Although First Officer Daniels had survived the crash and was able to testify, he too was unable to say why this had happened. As far as he remembered, everything was normal until the moment of impact, and he even recalled thinking that they were about 130 feet too low while crossing the Ross intersection, when in reality they were 450 feet too low. The NTSB therefore had to consider how he could have been so misled, and whether this by itself explained the accident.

The front page of the New York Times the day after the accident. (New York Times)

While the NTSB emphasized that any proposed reasoning was purely speculative, they nevertheless proposed a tentative theory rooted in the simultaneous use of both altitude above sea level and height above the runway.

First, before they reached the Ross intersection, Captain Reeves had mentioned that the crossing altitude for Ross was 1,800 feet, a figure given in altitude above sea level. However, according to Eastern Airlines procedures, both pilots’ primary altimeters had been set to read height above the runway, and since the runway lay at 726 feet above sea level, the height that should have been displayed on their altimeters at the Ross intersection was actually 1,074 feet, not 1,800. It was therefore possible that Daniels failed to consider this fact, and therefore unconsciously expected to see an altitude close to 1,800 feet upon reaching the intersection.

In actuality, flight 212 crossed over the Ross intersection at a height of 1,350 feet, or 624 feet above the runway. When Daniels glanced at his altimeter, it was possible that it might have been displaying an altitude of 670 feet at that particular moment. The instrument was a drum-pointer type, which displayed tens and hundreds of feet on a dial, while thousands of feet were displayed separately on an inset drum — a fact that could explain everything that followed. The problem with classic drum-pointer altimeters like those used in the 1970s was that they required two separate actions to read, and the thousands drum was often less prominent than the hundreds dial, which in many pilots gave rise to an alarming unconscious habit of reading only the hundreds place, while the brain filled in the thousands place with whatever figure it was expecting to see. The NTSB therefore theorized that when First Officer Daniels saw the number “670” on his altimeter at the Ross intersection, he might have falsely believed that he was at 1,670 feet, when he was actually a thousand feet lower. This must have occurred despite the prior activation of the “1,000 feet above terrain” tone, but pilots told the NTSB that because it activated on every flight, they saw the tone as more of a nuisance than a warning, and noted that the crew might have disabled it instinctively without comprehending its significance.

Another view of the intact portion of the tail. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

In any case, if Daniels believed that he was at 1,670 feet, it would explain his recollection that he was only 130 feet low at the Ross intersection, and it would also explain why he chose to descend at 800 feet per minute after crossing it. At Eastern Airlines, pilots were taught to choose the rate of descent on final approach by making a rough calculation based on airspeed, altitude, and distance remaining to the runway — first by dividing speed by distance remaining to derive the time to the runway threshold, then dividing their height above the runway by the time remaining to derive a descent rate. Therefore, if Daniels thought he was at 1,670 feet, and that they would cover the remaining 5.5 nautical miles in about two minutes, then his decision to descend at 800 feet per minute would have made perfect sense. Instead, however, this descent sent them plunging straight into the ground, and flight 212 ultimately crashed 3.3 nautical miles short of the runway and nearly 100 feet below the runway elevation, without either pilot ever realizing that they were too low.

Necessarily, the NTSB investigators found themselves asking how this could possibly be. During any approach, but especially a non-precision approach without automated vertical guidance, altitude awareness must be the flight crew’s foremost priority at all times. And yet, listening to the cockpit voice recording, at no point after receiving approach clearance did either pilot mention their altitude. Captain Reeves did mention the nominal crossing altitude of the Ross intersection, as well as the height of the MDA, but never the actual altitude of the aircraft — even though, as pilot not flying, this was his most important responsibility. In fact, Eastern Airlines procedures called for the non-flying pilot to announce their altitude and speed upon crossing the final approach fix, again at 1,000 feet above the runway, and a third time, along with the descent rate, at 500 feet, followed by a fourth callout at 100 feet above the MDA and a fifth at the MDA itself. But Captain Reeves never made a single one of these callouts, an omission that probably had deadly consequences. If at any point Reeves had performed his duty to monitor their altitude and call out these required milestones, he probably would have discovered that they were too low, but tragically, he did not.

Rescuers remove a victim from the crash site. (Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

In fact, in the NTSB’s view, the missing callouts were symptomatic of a broader problem with discipline in the cockpit of flight 212. Although it did not influence the accident, the crew repeatedly extended the flaps too far for their present airspeed, and their speed awareness appeared to be almost as lacking as their altitude awareness. Furthermore, the pilots maintained a casual atmosphere throughout the approach, which was most clearly exemplified by their off-topic chatter about pardoning Nixon, the consequences of the oil crisis, and the Carowinds tower. These idle conversations continued into high-workload periods of the flight when proper discipline would discourage distractions. Perhaps most egregious was Captain Reeves’ prolonged attempt to identify the Carowinds tower, which lasted nearly a minute (with a couple brief interruptions), right during the crucial phase when flight 212 was nearing 1,800 feet. He probably did not anticipate the need to level off because he was looking out the window at the tower and not at his altimeter, and the inadvertent descent below 1,800 feet likewise occurred during that period.

By that point, the most critical mistake had already occurred, but Reeves’ distraction had compressed the timeline for his remaining tasks, further reducing the chances that he would notice the error. As soon as he diverted his attention from the Carowinds tower, he launched into the before landing checklist, which he was required to complete before reaching the FAF. At that point the FAF was only about a minute away, so he likely kept his attention on the checklist and did not take the time to look at his altimeter. And once he finished the checklist, they were already so near the ground that he probably went “heads up” and began looking for the airport, again without ever checking their altitude.

Unfortunately, due to the ground fog, they never spotted the field. Three other flights landing ahead of flight 212 did manage to catch sight of the runway, but because flight 212 was so much farther away from the airport when it descended into the clouds, there was comparatively more fog between them and the runway. The pilots’ inability to see the runway might have prompted them to glance at their instruments, but in the end there was no time — the plane struck trees only seven or eight seconds after entering the fog.

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Firefighters douse the DC-9’s smoldering tail section. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

In the end, the NTSB’s final report proved to be short, coming to a conclusion about the cause in only 19 pages. Indeed, the evidence was painfully clear. “During the descent, until about 2 minutes and 30 seconds prior to the sound of impact, the flight crew engaged in conversations not pertinent to the operation of the aircraft,” the investigators wrote. “These conversations covered a number of subjects, from politics to used cars, and both crewmembers expressed strong views and mild aggravation concerning the subjects discussed. The Safety Board believes that these conversations were distractive and reflected a casual mood and lax cockpit atmosphere, which continued throughout the remainder of the approach and which contributed to the accident.”

This was far from the first time that pilots who were distracted, unfocused, or behaving unprofessionally had flown a perfectly good airliner into the ground, and NTSB investigators were painfully aware that it would probably not be the last. The problem, in the NTSB’s view, was simple complacency. The flight to Charlotte was so utterly ordinary that it had become little more than another day at the office, belying the steep consequences of a mistake. In 1974, there were few safeguards against pilot error, and careful altitude monitoring was essentially the only barrier preventing an air crew from flying into the ground. In subsequent years, planes would be fitted with ground proximity warning systems that have ultimately come to incorporate numerous helpful features, such as predictive terrain warnings, automated altitude callouts below 500 feet, and an automated “minimums” callout at the MDA. The crew of flight 212 had none of these things, but they acted like they did, and their momentary loss of focus — inadvertent, but nevertheless consequential — ended up costing the lives of 72 people.

The excellent work of the Steele Creek Volunteer Fire Department was credited for the swiftness of the rescue. The fire was extinguished and all survivors were evacuated within 45 minutes. (Don Sturkey Photographic Materials North Carolina Collection)

Although the crash contributed to ongoing efforts to develop new pilot assistance devices, technology alone could not solve a fundamentally human problem. Therefore, citing flight 212 and four other airline accidents, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration develop policies or programs that would tangibly improve cockpit discipline and professional standards.

As a result of the recommendations, the FAA began holding serious discussions with the Air Transport Association and other stakeholders about the problem of cockpit discipline, which ultimately reached a simple but important consensus: that distraction by extraneous conversation was by far the most significant safety risk under the umbrella of “unprofessional conduct.” Therefore, after gathering opinions and evidence, in 1981 the FAA imposed what would come to be known as the “sterile cockpit rule,” a transformative regulation that affected the course of every flight that has taken off or landed in the last 42 years.

The demands of the “sterile cockpit rule” are simple: between engine start and 10,000 feet on takeoff, and from 10,000 feet to engine shutdown on landing, cockpit crews are forbidden to partake in any activity not related to the operation of the aircraft. That includes off-topic conversations, eating food, looking at personal electronic devices, or any other low priority activity that could interfere with a pilot’s focus during these critical phases of flight.

Robert Sumwalt’s analysis of anonymous reports shows that altitude deviations are the most common adverse result of sterile cockpit violations. (Robert Sumwalt)

Although some pilots probably resented the government telling them when they could talk and what they could talk about, the benefits of the rule were and are self-evident. Safety is enhanced when pilots are properly focused during takeoff and landing, while the lifting of the rule above 10,000 feet allows pilots to engage in the lesser but nonetheless important task of getting to know one another on a personal level. Pilots work together better when they share a base level of familiarity, but it’s best to learn how many cars your colleague owns while cruising at 30,000 feet, not minutes from landing. And of course, while the Watergate scandal was certainly very dramatic, most pilots today adhere to a secondary, unwritten rule as well: that politics are off-limits at any altitude.

Obviously, 99% of the time no one is listening to make sure that pilots actually follow the sterile cockpit rule. The rule works on the honor system: captains are expected to lay down the law, and if they don’t, other crewmembers are expected to speak up instead. As a result of this inherent unenforceability, adherence was historically spotty, although it has improved considerably with the passage of time. Violations are still not unheard of: frequent readers of my articles might have noticed that I point them out with some regularity, even in accidents where the extraneous conversations may not have played any direct role. But despite occasional lapses, the rule has undoubtedly transformed the way pilots fly not just in the United States, but around the world, contributing to a higher base level of safety that we ought not take for granted.

The Colbert family memorial includes far too many family members whose lives were lost on September 11th, 1974. (Susan Walker)

In fact, if the rule were to be taken for granted, its effectiveness could erode. Adherence is dependent largely on company culture, from the chief pilot on down, and insufficient attention to its importance during crew training can infect an entire pilot cohort, leading to systemic disregard of the sterile cockpit. In a 1993 article, longtime NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt provided a number of concrete examples to help underscore its importance. Examining a database of anonymous reports, he noted that of all reports involving sterile cockpit violations, 48% resulted in altitude deviations, just like the crash of flight 212. “Both the F/O and I became distracted because of a conversation that was started before the level-off. At 4300 feet our altitude alert system went off…Our sterile cockpit procedures should have eliminated this problem if properly followed,” wrote one captain cited by Sumwalt. Another report came from a First Officer who had to save the day: “While descending into a broken deck of clouds, unannounced traffic appeared at 12 o’clock and less than a mile, climbing up our descent path,” the anonymous crewmember wrote. “In my best estimation we were on a collision course. I immediately … pushed the aircraft nose down and to the right to avoid impact. The Captain was engaged in a conversation with [somebody] on the jump seat.”

Cases such as these ended safely, but the crash of Eastern Airlines flight 212 illustrates that the sterile cockpit is a deadly serious matter. Failure to maintain a sterile cockpit would be cited again in the crash of Delta flight 1141 in 1988, which killed 14, and the 2006 crash of Comair flight 5191, which killed 49. As mentioned earlier, technology helps — but the bottom line continues to be discipline, whether imposed from above, or from within. If a new tower has opened at an amusement park, or even if the new president wants to pardon Nixon, 3,000 feet on approach at the controls of a DC-9 is never going to be the right place to talk about it.

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Admiral Cloudberg

Kyra Dempsey, analyzer of plane crashes. @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit, @KyraCloudy on Twitter and Bluesky. Email inquires -> kyracloudy97@gmail.com.