Sterile Cockpit Rule

Sterile Cockpit Rule

The Sterile Cockpit Rule is an FAA regulation requiring pilots to refrain from non-essential activities during critical phases of flight, normally below 10,000 feet. The FAA imposed the rule in 1981 after reviewing a series of accidents that were caused by flight crews who were distracted from their flying duties by engaging in non-essential conversations and activities during critical parts of the flight. [ [ Airline Safety Cockpit Rules Article, 2005] ] One such notable accident was Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, which crashed just short of the runway at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in 1974 while conducting an instrument approach in dense fog. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that a probable cause of the accident was distraction due to idle chatter among the flight crew during the approach phase of the flight. [ EAL 212 NTSB Report, May 23, 1975] ]

Historical background

In the early days of aviation, pilots had little chance to contemplate non-essential activities. Flying demanded constant attention, and the wind and engine noise in a slipstream-blasted open cockpit all but drowned out normal conversations. In the early years of instrument flying, the effort involved in "flying the beam" — navigating a course determined by the intersection of ground based radio signals by straining to listen through a headset to a scratchy audio stream of "dits and dahs" [ [ History of Radio Navigation Article] ] — also forced pilots to concentrate on flying duties during instrument meteorological conditions. However, as aviation technology matured into the Jet Age in the 1960s, comfort and sound levels gradually became more office-like and hence more conducive to distractions. Multi-person flight and cabin crews, autopilots, in-flight meals, newspaper service and other comforts further increased the availability and convenience of non-flight related activities for flight crews during flight time. The introduction of the Cockpit Voice Recorder as an objective onboard observer played an important role in the assessment of the problem during accident investigation by the NTSB, and eventual promulgation of the rules by the FAA.

The rules

The following is the actual text from U.S. FAR 121.542/135.100, "Flight Crewmember Duties": [ U.S. FAA FAR 121.542] ]

(a) No certificate holder shall require, nor may any flight crewmember perform, any duties during a critical phase of flight except those duties required for the safe operation of the aircraft. Duties such as company required calls made for such nonsafety related purposes as ordering galley supplies and confirming passenger connections, announcements made to passengers promoting the air carrier or pointing out sights of interest, and filling out company payroll and related records are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft.

(b) No flight crewmember may engage in, nor may any pilot in command permit, any activity during a critical phase of flight which could distract any flight crewmember from the performance of his or her duties or which could interfere in any way with the proper conduct of those duties. Activities such as eating meals, engaging in nonessential conversations within the cockpit and nonessential communications between the cabin and cockpit crews, and reading publications not related to the proper conduct of the flight are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft.

(c) For the purposes of this section, critical phases of flight includes all ground operations involving taxi, takeoff and landing, and all other flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet, except cruise flight.

Note: "Taxi" is defined as “movement of an airplane under its own power on the surface of an airport.”


Strictly speaking, this rule is legally applicable only to Part 121 (Scheduled Air Carriers) and Part 135 (Commercial Operators). However, for example, a pilot of an aircraft flying under Part 91 (non-commercial general aviation) rules could presumably be charged with 'careless and reckless operation', per [ FAR 91.13] , if an accident occurs as a result of distraction due to idle chatter or other non-essential activity during a critical flight segment.


Some observers believe that confusion over the Sterile Cockpit rule may in some cases impede safety rather than enhance it, with regard to communication between the cabin crew and the flight crew. There are some documented cases where cabin crew who observed abnormal potentially safety related events during the flight did not relay their observation to the flight crew, allegedly for fear of violating the Sterile Cockpit rule. Quoting from a report on one such recorded incident: [ Cockpit/Cabin Crew Performance: Recent Research, 1995] ]

On July 9th of this year, an ATR aft passenger door separated after take-off at analtitude of 600 feet (NTSB, 1995b). The flight attendant at the door, stated that she did not think of calling the cockpit when she heard the sound of the door leak before itseparated, because the aircraft was under sterile cockpit conditions (Code of Federal Regulations, 1994). When queried as to what conditions she would call the cockpit whensterile, she responded that she would in case of fire or a problem passenger. Confusion over and rigid interpretation of the sterile cockpit rule is not unusual as our studies have shown (Chute & Wiener, in press).

ee also

*Crew Resource Management
*Air safety


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