How Did Those Northwest Pilots Miss the Airport?

It has been plastered all over the news, but I wanted to wait a little until we had more information on what happened. Now that the NTSB has released its early findings, let’s talk. This is a mess.

You know the story – Northwest 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis decided that Wisconsin was a better destination. Once pilots realized they had gone too far east, they turned around and landed. As far as I’m concerned, the excuses NW 188 via FlightAwaregiven by the pilots seem flimsy at best.

At left, you can see what happened to flight 188 on October 21 thanks to FlightAware. The last radio communication is said to have occurred around 656p Central Time. That would have been about 20 minutes after they started talking to Denver Center (the air traffic control center that controls that patch of airspace). The plane was at 37,000 feet traveling at a roughly 30 degree heading.

There were a couple of slight course corrections but nothing else until 814p when they got back in touch with air traffic control, well past Minneapolis. They then started turning south and at 817p they started descending. Air traffic control made them do some turns to prove they hadn’t been hijacked, and they ended up landing around 9p. So what the heck happened?

Well, these pilots had ample experience, haven’t had any problems before, and weren’t fatigued after a 19 hour layover in San Diego. The pilots insist they weren’t arguing nor sleeping but rather having a heated discussion. That means that for over and hour, the pilots ignored radio calls and attempted contact from their company dispatcher because they were engrossed in this conversation about their new crew scheduling system.

At one point, the pilots pulled out their laptops, apparently to review the new system. Delta says they don’t allow personal laptop use for pilots while flying, so naturally the mainstream media folks have jumped on this as the headline. It shouldn’t be. But could the Laptop for NW Pilotsnew bidding system really have been so exciting to have kept them distracted for over an hour? It’s certainly going to be a complicated topic of discussion, but I find it unconscionable that they would simply forget that they were flying an airplane for that long.

Delta put out a statement on personal laptop use that says:

Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots’ command of the aircraft during flight is strictly against the airline’s flight deck policies and violations of that policy will result in termination.

Sounds like these guys are going to have to fight for their jobs.

I still just can’t believe that for over an hour they failed to respond to any attempts at communication. You could have a live stage show in the cockpit and they still should have heard something to trigger them to actually pay attention for a minute. What did finally bring them back to reality? A flight attendant called up 5 minutes before they were supposed to arrive asking for an estimated time of arrival. That’s when they realized they screwed up.

Even though they were out of contact for over an hour, they didn’t overshoot the airport by that much. The flight the day before was 3:36 while the one the day after was 3:20. This flight took 3:54. I have to assume that had it gone any longer, some sort of fuel warning would have caught their attention . . . or not.

Sadly, we’ll probably never know what happened since the cockpit voice recorder only held 30 minutes of data. It began during final approach, so all the good stuff was missed. We probably won’t know if something else happened instead.

I can’t say this makes me particularly nervous about flying in general, but it definitely makes me think twice about those reinforced cockpit doors. What if these guys had been so engrossed that they failed to answer to any sort of communication attempts? Or what if they both ate the fish? Ted Striker never would have been able to get up there to save the day.

65 Responses to How Did Those Northwest Pilots Miss the Airport?

  1. yo says:

    “Well, it appears that Scraps is a boy dog!”

    They were dozing, and covering for each other. The union goons will fight any action against them.

    Same same

  2. “Air traffic control made them do some turns to prove they hadn’t been hijacked”

    Hmm, how could ATC communicate this in a way that an experienced pilot, or even someone who had just gotten their instrument rating couldn’t follow and prove that the plane hadn’t been hijacked?

  3. Right. They did that well after they were past the Twin Cities.

    It should be noted that federal authorities have now confirmed pretty much what I was reporting last week — that the significance of the incident is that it revealed that the supposed changes after 9/11 have not led to improved response to security threats (unless you’re flying a small plane that can’t really do any damage, then they’re on you like white on rice.)

    Air traffic controllers repeatedly tried to reach the pilots of the Northwest flight as it continued on course without deviation,” (FAA administrator Randy) Babbitt said in a statement. “The plane followed its filed flight plan, the transponder remained on and the plane did not send any emergency or distress signals. However, the controllers should have notified NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) more quickly that the plane was not responding.”

    This is particularly troubling since it suggests that the head of the FAA believes that the ONLY profile of a terrorist threat is the one that was used on 9/11. Foolhardy, to say the least.

    Meanwhile, today the general in charge of the air defense unit declared flatly that the jets should’ve been launched much earlier and the FAA should’ve notified his people of that.

    That the controllers waited for an hour, until the plane was over Ladysmith, Wisconsin before — apparently — considering the possibility that there was a threat is pretty incompetent, given the billions of dollars and on-the-ground “safeguards” and security legislation this country has gone through in the last 8 years.

    At the end of the day, the nation’s security still depends on a human. That is also it’s primary weakness.

  4. Bob Collins wrote:

    At the end of the day, the nation’s security still depends on a human. That is also it’s primary weakness.

    We’re due for an amazing upgrade in lots of technology with airplanes. I’m surprised that the default mode of communication is analog radios. I think this should always be a backup but I’d think we could do better with something based off of/related to current cell phone technology. If this were the case you could’ve had a computer keeping track of the last transmission from this plane and identifying that they hadn’t received a transmission in x minutes that could then put this on a high level screen with multiple people watching…

  5. micke says:

    what if ? why ? who cares? everyone landed safely and no one was hurt.Why don’t you crunsh on real problems ?
    So the power that be will make an example and severly punish the poor bastards ! why ? is there a real point to this? what will the next pilot be taught by this punishment? don’t what ?
    land safely ?

  6. It depends on what particular angle you don’t recognize the significance. If it’s the one I’ve been concentrating on — a test of our defense systems against terrorism — well, if two wars, significant constitutional restrictions, three thousand dead people, four smoking holes, billions of dollars, and the elimination of any convenience to air travel haven’t led you to see the importance of assessing what that’s all for, nothing anyone writes on a blog is going to.

  7. Consumer Mike says:

    The lesson will not be lost to other pilots that they have a job to do. Lack of attention, dangerous pilot errors or other major safety mistakes are NOT acceptable to the flying public. I can’t belive you ask “who cares?” My thinkinf is that anyone who boards on a flight cares about getting to their destination IN ONE PIECE! Your attitude would allow loose compliance to safety rules to be the norm. UNACCEPTABLE!@ micke:

  8. Micke says:

    Dear Sir,
    everyone WAS in one piece !
    Pilots did goof off.
    THEY will be overly punished.. thanks to your thinking.
    Please do not bring 9/11 to this debate it doesn’t help your rant.

  9. Unfortunately, it was the FAA that brought 9/11 into the discussion by stating their concerns that the plane might have been hijacked.

    It’s a pretty complex story in terms of significance and requires taking the time to familiarize yourself with it.

  10. Consumer Mike says:

    I did not say one word about 9/11 thank you. What I did say was SAFETY FIRST! I am sorry you have a problem with the reprocussions of their failure to do their job properly and professionally.@ Micke:

  11. Oliver says:

    @Micke I guess as long as they don’t get caught crashing into you, you’re also okay with motorists driving recklessly and/or drunk. After all, if they didn’t hurt you, no harm was done. Right?

  12. JACK says:

    Maybe they were diddling one of the ladies

  13. Frank says:

    @ Oliver:
    It doesn’t matter where they were headed. Jets were scrambled after Payne Stewart’s plane when they couldn’t be contacted and they were over nowhere in the Midwest. The fact that a big ass commercial airplane was unable to be contacted after 13 attempts by ATC, and that no jets were scrambled after it, makes me very suspicious that there is something VERY different about this incident. We the public have no idea. And those that know aren’t telling.

  14. bmed says:

    UFO. They saw it, perhaps were controlled by it. The F-16s were scrambled and witnessed it. These unlucky pilots are taking the fall for a Govey coverup.

  15. jerome says:

    You Know that anythings that have do with Airlines is BIG news and all the news and TV are all over it.These pilot are very experience.
    Furthermore for a Pilot to be checked out to fly a A320 YOU must be very very experience and show your competience. I think that these two pilots should be reprimand.From a privet pilot with friends that fly this type of plan is not easy, if you would know what they have to do for the safty of you and the plane it would drive you crazy.

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