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Sterile cockpit rule for pilots & air medical flight crews

Every so often change sweeps across our industry.

If we’re lucky, the change is something simple, easy-to-understand and use.  Something we benefit from immediately and want to share with our friends and co-workers.

If we’re really lucky it makes us better or safer, or both.

The sterile cockpit rule does all the above.

The rule regulates how pilots and flight crew do their jobs.  In a very real way, it makes common sense the law.

It requires pilots and flight crew to focus on doing the right things, at the right times, for the right reasons.

We absolutely love it when stuff like this happens!

So, what exactly is the sterile cockpit rule?

Well, first a confession about what it is not.

Sterile cockpit has nothing to do with the article picture.  Sterile, in the context of the rule, is not about cleanliness.  You can imagine our almost unlimited creative choices in regard to sterility pictures.  We opted for the reserved one above.

What does sterile cockpit mean in proper context?

The Sterile Cockpit Rule is an FAA regulation requiring pilots to refrain from non-essential activities during critical phases of flight.

The FAA imposed the rule in 1981 after reviewing a series of accidents.  The common thread to the accidents were flight crews distracted from flying by non-essential conversations and activities during critical phases of flights.  To cure insomnia or view the actual U.S. FAR 121.542/135.100, “Flight Crewmember Duties” text, click here.

What does the technical speak in FAR 121.542/135.100 really mean?

Simple, pilots and flight crew were talking smack or taking care of personal (or company) stuff when they were supposed to be flying the aircraft.

What does the sterile cockpit rule change for pilots and flight crew?

A couple things:

First, sterile cockpit procedures ensure complete focus on flying or flight safety duties during all critical phases of flight.  The sterile cockpit rule is mandatory.  This means no talking about pending charts, vacation plans or the score of yesterday’s ball game during takeoff, landing, hovering, landing zone operations or other critical phases of flight defined by the FAA or individual operators.

Second, specific time periods are set for sterile cockpit.  Generally speaking, the minute after takeoff and minute prior to landing are ‘sterile’ for emergency medical services flights.

Third, pilots and flight crew are empowered to use the sterile cockpit rule with Crew Resource Management or Air Medical Resource Management techniques any time it is deemed necessary.

All good things.  All things that can save your life.

Um…isn’t that what pilots and flight crew are supposed to do all the time?

In a word, yes.  Of course we expect pilots to fly the aircraft and flight crew to keep it safe.  But here’s the rub: sometimes reality takes big detours from common sense.  Sometimes people and companies forget what is really important and where to focus.  The sterile cockpit rule re-directs everyone’s focus.  It puts our focus back on flying safely.  It’s a good thing and its the law.

As Flight Safety Network, do you practice and use the sterile cockpit rule?  Is it working?  Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Clear skies and tailwinds,


Troy Shaffer
Troy Shaffer

About the Author: Troy is an Air Medical Career Expert passionate about a team approach to improving air medical safety from the ground up. Troy is a former Army medic, Army pilot, Coast Guard pilot and EMS pilot. Troy has taught hundreds of wannabe flight medics, flight nurses and EMS pilots the exact steps needed to launch air medical careers.

    2 replies to "How Sterile Cockpits Can Save Your Life"

    • Jim Walters

      Troy, I have developed Sterile Zone for the electric power industry based on the presumed success of Sterile Cockpit. I am trying to find information regarding SC success and wondering if you can help me?

      FYI – I have developed critical thinking workshops for large clinic in my city. My approach for correcting errors at all levels at a hospital, clinic, etc. is to help workers improve their critical thinking skills.

      Thank you in advance!


      • Troy Shaffer

        Hi Jim,

        Thanks for your question. Your project for the electric power industry sounds interesting.

        At EMS Flight Safety Network, we’re glad to help however we can.

        Please email me at ask @ flightsafetynet dot com

        Clear Skies & Tailwinds

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