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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65 Comments on "How Did Those Northwest Pilots Miss the Airport?"

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David SF eastbay
Member
You can sit in your livingroom reading, be on your laptop, or doing a number of other things and loose track of time. But how does one do that in a moving airplane that you should be flying? They were either asleep, or that was one engrossing conversation about the new scheduling system. You just spent 19 hours on a layover and couldn’t fine time to go over this. Their union will have a hard time fighting to save their jobs since the union is always in your face on how pilots are trained professionals who should be treated like… Read more »
Ben
Guest

This is a different type of flying all together…

johnny
Member

I would fire them

hdawg
Guest

correct me if I’m wrong (but regarding the ted striker comedy …), however don’t FA’s have access to the cockpit through a door code sequence … whereas they can get in if the pilots are non-responsive in an emergency situation?

Perhaps if they had both eaten the fish.

Trent880
Guest

This doesn’t end well for the pilots. I can’t think of any scenario that would make it ok for them to ignore their job for such a period of time.

chris771
Member

I think that they were asleep and are just grabbing at straws with the excuse about the laptops. At least “engrossed in work on my laptop” sounds better than saying, “yeah, we dozed off for a while.” I mean, come on, even when I’m deeply engrossed in work on my laptop, I’ll answer the phone. But I might not answer it if I’m taking a nap.

A
Guest
Seems most people think these guys were sleeping. I don’t know A320 avionics but from what I’ve heard in the media, there would be an audible as they approached their destination. How could something like that, let alone repeated radio contact, not wake you up, but a call from a FA did? I can for sure believe these guys were asleep, but that deep of a sleep? There have been way bigger incidents in the cockpit than sleeping at cruising altitude…or heated discussions if you will. Some famous incidents come to mind…Delta 1141, Eastern 401, etc. All in all I… Read more »
chris.pc
Guest

I don’t doubt their story. they screwed up. what I am less sure about is what should happen in this case: fire them for one mistake after a long career (which sounds harsh and unfair) or let it slide with a reprimand (makes me uncomfortable being their next passenger)?

jaybru
Member
I’m sure the pilots of the world are holding their sides laughing at us trying to figure out what went on. “If they only knew!” One of the joys of flying UA is listening in on Channel 9. I never miss a second, and am always trying to figure out what is going on. Pilots getting the next ATC frequency. even the Center, all wrong. ATC calling an airliner over and over and getting no reponse as you are looking out the window and whoosh, some large aircraft goes racing by. And my favorite, ATC talking to an Air France… Read more »
Andrew
Guest

The first clue to investigators should’ve been when, sometime after midnight, with the plane parked for the evening, the pilot emerged from the cockpit, hat and tie askew, thrust his arms into the air and yawned in a profound stretch; Scratching at an armpit, he exclaimed, “Man! Truly epic nap. Once we got over Nebraska I was just dead to the world…. hey, where is everyone?”

NM
Guest

“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

Gray
Guest

Airplanes have to carry enough fuel for an airport diversion, plus 45 minutes extra minutes extra, in addition. I doubt it the flight had continued “for any longer,” that fuel would’ve been a problem. I think that’s a bit alarmist to mention fuel as an issue.

Meredith
Guest

Oh, airplane humor…

Maybe they were getting it on?!?!

Greg Thomson
Guest
Johnny Jet- It must be nice to be so perfect as to judge others so well. Especially when having only part of the information. This will wash itself out appropriately. I will not judge these pilot’s actions as so many are so quick to do. It is very easy to make mistakes in the job. If they were truly disregarding company procedure they will be punished. Most pilots never expect to be treated like ‘gods’. We only ask that people realize we are just as prone to making mistakes as any other person in any other career. Our mistakes can… Read more »
david
Member

#1 Awesome reference to Airplane

#2 What is really bothering me about the coverage is the “did the tray cause the pilots to miss the airport?” NO NO NO! The pilots caused the pilots to miss the airport. Sleeping, conversation, arguing, playing twister, it doesn’t matter. They have the duty to do their jobs and the safety of the passengers and crew are at stake.

Wendi
Guest

Take away their seniority.

Consumer Mike
Guest
Pilots which are entrusted with the lives of passengers have the duty and responsibility to be alert and able to communicate with the ground and other aircraft AT ALL TIMES! There is absolutely no excuse for what these pilots did. This was the second major negative event for Delta in a week. The other was the plane that landed on the taxi-way instead of the runway. Delta needs to tighten up its show before something horrific happens. Screw the union, if any pilot screws up all they are going to do is send regrets! Bottom line; terminate the 2 pilots… Read more »
Chris
Guest
CF wrote: hdawg wrote: correct me if I’m wrong (but regarding the ted striker comedy …), however don’t FA’s have access to the cockpit through a door code sequence … whereas they can get in if the pilots are non-responsive in an emergency situation? If that’s true, it kind of defeats the purpose. Then a hijacker could get them to open the door, and I thought the point was to make it impenetrable. @Cranky, HDawg is correct, there is a number sequence for the FA’s to open the door. HOWEVER, there is a 5+ second gap at which point the… Read more »
Allen
Guest

While I want to be understanding like Greg, wasn’t the Tenerife disaster essentially caused by an experienced pilot who didn’t have any blemishes on his record making a big mistake? In this case it’s not so much making the mistake but the severity and implications of it.

trackback

[…] Street Journal has step-by-step recap.  Everybody is putting their thoughts out there, including The Cranky Flier and Jetwhine blogs.  There have been jokes and the happy ending to ease people’s […]

BJ
Guest
There was some references to ATC trying to call and them not responding for the hour. If their last call was 20 minutes before ATC tried calling them it is possible that they went out of range of the VHF transmitter. As such it would have been quiet on the aircraft selected frequency. As for whether they stuffed up because of laptops or sleep – only they know and anything else is conjecture. Give the guys a break cause we all stuff up at some time in our careers. I’d fly with them because they certainly wouldn’t do this again.
David SF eastbay
Member

The FAA has revoked their licenses.

“””The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday the pilots had violated numerous regulations, including failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating carelessly and recklessly.”””

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091027/ap_on_bi_ge/us_northwest_flight_overflown

Consumer Mike
Guest

Regarding BJ’s comment, these guys were out of touch with the world for OVER AN HOUR. Sorry, no excuses for that. I really don’t think they can talk their way out of what happened. Passenger lives were at risk.

Steve
Guest
Has anyone seen the “flight deck” aka cockpit of a A320? There is no “stick” in front of the pilots. The control of the airplane is via a joystick at the left hand of the captain. What IS available is a TABLETOP! Just perfect for a laptop. Hmm how inviting. If this had been DELTA with WiFi I would have guessed they were “working” the internet, but since it was Northwest that wouldn’t happen. I’ll bet they were watching porn. its a lot more interesting than the new crew scheduling program. Just too bad we will never know. Maybe they… Read more »
BJ
Guest

Mike I agree there are no excuses. However, in our world it seems the easy option is to sack people. I personally would prefer to see companies work on ways to improve deficiencies with staff and work on retention.

Oliver
Guest
Today on a United flight: I was the second person to deplane, and the guy in front of me walks by the captain standing in the open cockpit door and says “Hope you had a nice nap.” Needless to say, the pilot wasn’t amused (and rightfully so). @BJ — I don’t know what ultimately happened on that NW/Delta flight, but I know there are mistakes and then there are MISTAKES. If they really lost situational awareness for over an hour, I wouldn’t consider that a mistake, no matter what the cause. So I am curious, what would have happened if… Read more »
rp
Guest

Had to be sleep or sex in some form. I’ve heard no reports of medical issues.

Graham
Guest

I’ve never gotten over Macho Grande.

dan powers
Guest
with over 30,000 thousand hours a big chunk flying a320’s in the usa…from the information I have read….the cabin crew called them 5 minutes prior to landing…which means they had probably just overflown MSP-which due to a overcast could not be seen. 150 miles in a 320 is not that far…about 11-15 minutes depending on speed. so the overshoot was mostly contacting air traffic control, descending, making a 180 degree turn…the other gotcha..is that flying over south dakota, western minnesota…there are very few frequency changes…so had this been in california or the east coast it could have never happened. a… Read more »
Bob Collins
Guest
I caught the insinuation in your post that mainstream media — not being smart enough to be pilots — don’t know what they’re talking about when covering this story. And to a large degree that’s true. But I do want to remind you that quite a few of us who make our livings in the mainstream media ARE pilots and DO know what we’re talking about and DO have intimate and substantial knowledge about aviation. So my guidance would be to just be careful about sweeping generalizations. That said, the “they didn’t overshoot by that much” is wrong. They overshot… Read more »
Davester
Guest

I agree with Meredith and Steve above – suspecting hanky panky or the viewing adult entertainment programming. OTH, maybe one dude was sleeping and the other was engrossed with the scheduling system – plotting his next mileage/flying hours run!

Greg Thomson
Guest
Bob Collins- the mainstream media is smart enough to not be pilots. However, I have yet to see a mainstream media type reporting on aviation that has gotten even a piece of it correct. This includes the private pilots who think they know what is going on, but have no idea. The FAA has revoked the license of these two. This might ultimately be the correct decision. However, the speed with which it happened corresponds with news cycles rather than the due diligence provided by the ASAP program. I fear the bureaucrats expedited things to appease the public. Within the… Read more »
Bob Collins
Guest
Hi Greg. Thanks for taking the time to write back. When you say “not one piece of it right.” Such as what? What time communication was lost? When a descent should be initiated? What centers handed off to whom and when? Granted I’ve seen some stupid, stupid reporting on this and other aviation issues, but when you say things like “haven’t got one piece of it right” and “people who are private pilots … have no idea,” are we talking a factual statement or are we talking hyperbole here. In other words, how do you define “it”? (g) I can’t… Read more »
SEAN
Guest

Roger roger. What’s are vector Victor.

Joey, Do you like movies about gladiators?

I just want to tell you good luck. We’re all counting on you.

The best laugh out loud film of all time.

Hanky panky no matter how you spin this. Fire them.

Bob Collins
Guest

Thanks for the reply, CF. I love the blog! Keep up the great work.

Greg Thomson
Guest
Brett- you are correct that they would not have been sole source, and thus under some ASAP programs would not have been afforded license immunity. In the ASAP program I work under, we would be afforded license immunity so long as it was deemed we didn’t commit one of the deadly sins (even if not sole source). They likely committed one of those sins; so would not receive immunity even under this ASAP program. The ASAP report and comity can and does run along side the other investigation. Bob, one of those differences I alluded to, in the 91 world;… Read more »
Danny
Guest

The Delta scheduling system can only be accessed online. There is no offline version for it.

Oh, and flight attendants have a way to access the cockpit. But if I tell you how, I’ll have to kill you.

Oliver
Guest
A thought on the general media (of which I am NOT a member of): they can’t possibly be an expert in everything themselves, so their reporting is often vague/wrong even if they do try hard (which they often don’t). And when they rely on experts, it’s probably not always easy to get a good expert. Some news show last weekend had Sully’s first officer (too lazy to look up his name) comment on this incident, and he basically gave some vague comments. Probably didn’t want to speculate, which is the right thing. So why is there so little talk about… Read more »
Bob Collins
Guest
Jeff Skiles. I heard him on The Takeaway and thought his most interesting comment was “it’s very unusual to have enough extra fuel for a 300 mile diversion.” I know airlines don’t like hauling extra fuel around and I realize the minimum is for destination + 45 minutes (it landed an hour late in this case), but I’ll ask the airline pilots on this forum, is Skiles right? The most interesting thing I watched was the “they must have been asleep” angle. It started,a ctually, with the Wall St. Journal, who asked the NTSB flak, “could they have been sleeping?”… Read more »
Greg Thomson
Guest
@ Bob Collins: As to Skiles comment, I do not have enough knowledge of the Airbus and operations surrounding it to make an accurate comment on what is a normal alternate distance. In the airplane I fly, 300 miles would be far. My employer does encourage our dispatchers to use alternates as close as possible, no matter how impractical, to minimize fuel carried. Example- if we need to use an alternate for SeaTac they will usually file Boeing field (just a few miles away). You are correct on the fuel needing to be destination + 45 minutes. If an alternate… Read more »
Consumer Mike
Guest
Many of the on-going comments regarding details of the aircraft, extra fuel, cockpit layout are interesting. However, the point of fact is that the pilots were not doing their job. I don’t care what the reason. Lives were at risk. The same goes for the crew of the Delta flight that landed on a taxiway, as I commented a couple of days ago. Don’t loose sight of the trees through the forest. The pilots of both aircraft were paid to do a professional job. Taking responsibility for the lives of all those passengers is serious business. Anything less is NOT… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
All this talk about the media shouldn’t be surprising that they control public opinion. Anytime something happens to an airplane within minutes CNN is live with some ‘expert’ who will tell everything about what is happening in and with the plane and what the pilots are doing. How would they know what is happening in the plane and what the pilots are doing? They wouldn’t, but CNN and every other network will have their ‘experts’ swaying the public. No one wants to wait to hear what happen, the networks want ratings so they need to have these ‘experts’ so the… Read more »
Consumer Mike
Guest

In reply to Mr. Feastbay; The issue should not be focused on the news media. Lets focus on what happened and who were the responsible parties.

News is news. You should not kill the messenger.

matt weber
Member
I’ve read the FAA’s revocation order and I’d like to point out some of the things it says. 1). According to the FAA, they were out of contact with ATC for 91 minutes. It isn’t clear to me exactly what that means. I.E. did someone actually fail to reach them for that period, or is that the time between the last successful radio communication, and the crew finally contacting Minneapolis Center. The FAA order does clearly show that 51 minutes passed between when the crew as instructed to contact Minneapolis Center, and they actually did so. That would be 400+… Read more »
Bob Collins
Guest
A lot of the particulars here I’ve reported on previously so I won’t bother to repeat it here. From time to time I see this reference to Eau Claire. It’s interesting because the flight never went over Eau Claire. At the time the plane actually started changing course — signifying the pilots were back in the game — they were over Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which is about 80 miles away. But a northeasterly course over the top of MSP doesn’t take you over Eau Claire, so that’s a confusing element of the story which keeps popping up. The last contact they… Read more »
Davester
Guest

Here is a quote that we all probably agree on:
“CoPilot_Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Bob Collins wrote:

[…] The last contact they had was over Kansas. I can’t remember exactly where but it’s on the blog. I believe it’s roughly at the point where Denver hands off to Minneapolis center.

Jon
Guest

@ Ben:
“This is a different type of flying.”

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