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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.

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