Sterile Cockpit Rule – What It Is & Why It Matters

what is the sterile cockpit rule

In essence, this is what the sterile cockpit rule refers to – complete silence.

The sterile cockpit concept requires the flight crew to only carry out activities required for the safe operation of the aircraft during critical phases of flight (normally below 10,000 ft) and forbids all non-essential activities in the cockpit.

The “Sterile Cockpit” concept aims to ensure that pilots are fully focused during the most critical moments of a flight.

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What is the Sterile Cockpit Rule?

A Sterile Flight Deck is a daily routine of every pilot’s flight. 

You know, that exciting part where the wheels start rolling down the runway faster and faster until leaving the ground? Or the part where the wheels touch the ground again, and you can stop praying for a safe return… In those please-god-no-turbulence moments, the pilots follow the Sterile Cockpit rule. 

The FAA defines the Sterile Flight Deck procedures as: “prohibits flight crews from performing nonessential activities during the following phases of flight: taxi, takeoff, landing, and all other flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet, except cruise flight. Compliance is vital since sterile flight deck infractions have been identified in several accidents as a latent hazard.” (FAA, Section 121.542). 

A sterile cockpit is the practice of maintaining a quiet, distraction-free aircraft when the workload is the most intense. Here, the pilot must concentrate very closely. Pilots must prioritise tasks and remain focused on getting the aeroplane in the air or on the ground. 

While this may seem obvious, research into past accidents has shown that this is not easy. 

History of the Sterile Cockpit Rule

When aviation was still new, pilots had few opportunities to catch up on last night’s game. The earliest aeroplanes were extremely noisy, with wind and engine noise cancelling any chit-chat in the cockpit. That meant that pilots needed to listen intensively to radio signals from the ground and information between each other.

Today aviation has become a free haven for comfort and sound reduction, getting close to an office-like environment. Soon, the only thing missing is a height-adjustable table. Due to this, pilots are more susceptible to distractions, creating a new set of challenges. Amenities like in-flight meals, newspaper services, and autopilot makes it easier than ever for pilots to get sidetracked during flight.

To address this issue, the FAA introduced the Sterile Flight Deck concept.

Regulations

Many regulatory bodies define strict regulations for a sterile cockpit. These include the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

sterile flight deck fan regulations

FAA regulations

In the US Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR), the rule is legally applicable only to Part 121 (Scheduled Air Carriers) and Part 135 (Commercial Operations). The US FAR 121.542-7135.100 reads:

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.

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.

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 [3,000 m], except cruise flight.

EASA regulations

Regulation (EU) 2015/140 in EASA addresses the Sterile Cockpit concept as an amending regulation to (EU) No 965/2012 on air operations:

The commander shall not permit any crew member to perform any activity during takeoff, initial climb, final approach and landing except those duties required for the safe operation of the aeroplane.

Regardless of regulation, many operators have chosen voluntarily to apply similar rules within their company. Where introduced, operators widely adhere to these proactive moves and recognise them as a valuable contribution to operational safety.

However, aircraft type, role, and operating environment influence the exact interpretation of what constitutes the “sterile zone.”

Breaking the Sterile Cockpit Rule

Numerous accidents over the years have been caused by crew members getting distracted from their flying tasks.Task such as setting the flaps before takeoff, extending the landing gear before landing, or monitoring altitude during an instrument approach.

One of the most well-known accidents is Eastern Airlines Flight 212, which crashed in 1974. The pilots were conducting an instrument approach in dense fog, killing 72 of the 82 onboard. The investigation team concluded that the crew had become distracted by idle chatter during the final stages of the flight. This led to a lack of altitude awareness and the aircraft crashed over 5 kilometres short of the runway.

Another example was the Widerøe-operated de Havilland Canada Dash 7 that crashed in 1988 when approaching Brønnøvsund Airport. The aircraft had descended from 500 to 170 meters at 15 km instead of 7.4 km from the airport. The subsequent investigation revealed that the pilot had been conversing with a passenger seated on the jump seat. The report blamed the crew’s poor airmanship for not monitoring altitude and course information.

The crash claimed the lives of all thirty-six people onboard, making it the deadliest accident in Northern Norway.

Final thoughts

In light of the historical context and regulatory framework governing the sterile cockpit rule, it’s clear that this principle is not just a guideline but a critical safety measure embedded in the operational fabric of aviation. The rule’s enforcement is vital for minimising distractions during the most essential phases of flight, ensuring that pilots’ attention remains undivided in ensuring the aircraft’s safe operation.

Looking to enforce the sterile cockpit rule in your operation? Reserve a seat on our immersive Crew Resource Management Training Course.

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Picture of Anne Knudsen

Anne Knudsen

Anne's career began in the late 80s as a cabin crew, and she was quickly drawn to the world of flying. After a few years, she became a pilot and flight instructor in several larger airlines. Presently, Anne holds the role of CEO at NaviMinds.

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