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(New Update: Browsing or Drowsing – Pilots Plead Laptop Distraction)

A Northwest Airlines flight from San Diego flew at least 150 miles past Minneapolis St. Paul Airport (MSP) Wednesday night, out of radio contact and apparently on autopilot. Military fighter jets were about to scramble and intercept the Airbus A320 when radio contact was finally made after 75 minutes. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the incident.

Concerns for possible hijacking, terrorism or technical problems had the FBI and security personnel on the alert and investigating. The Star Tribune reported that Delta Air Lines, which operates Northwest, has suspended the pilot and co-pilot. Delta said Flight 188 had 144 passengers and five crew members. Pilots initially told FBI agents that they had been distracted by a heated argument in the cockpit.

Passenger’s responses ranged from anger to whimsy, with at least one passenger asking whether the extra miles would be added to their Frequent Flyer totals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQUf6xGl-mw&feature=player_embedded

What were they Doing Up There? While no credible sources have entertained the whimsical orgy referenced in the headline, many have questioned how an argument could distract the pilots for over an hour. The New York times reported:

"It just doesn’t make any sense," Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., told The A.P. "The pilots are saying they were involved in a heated conversation. Well, that was a very long conversation."

Sources have speculated that the pilots may have fallen asleep. The pilots apparently were unaware of their overshoot until a flight attendant in the cabin contacted them by intercom. The plane was over Eau Claire, Wisconsin and had been out of communication for over an hour.

Black Box Should Reveal Much. The A320 has a cockpit voice recorder that should answer many questions. It is unknown how long it will be before the NTSB reveals their findings. Regardless of whether the recordings reveal snoring, bickering, or even squeals of passion, airline customers should be concerned. 37,000 feet at several hundred miles an hour is no place to get distracted, even with modern autopilot computers.

Overshoot Much Farther than Reported. Although it has been widely reported that the aircraft overshot the Twin Cities by 150 miles, the overshoot was actually closer to 400 or 500 miles. The plane was out of contact for more than an hour, and should have begun its descent several hundred miles west of the Twin Cities. The plane flew over Minneapolis at 37,000 feet at cruising speed, apparently on autopilot, and was still cruising 150miles past the Twin Cities.

The flight path of Northwest flight 188
The photo shows the plane’s flight path as captured on flightaware.com, a website which tracks air traffic. Because of security concerns, once communications was reestablished, the plane was apparently put through a series of various turns, in part to assure flight controllers that the plane was still in control of the pilots.

Past Incidents. The flight brought forth memories of the 1999 death of golfer Payne Stewart. Jets that scrambled then discovered that Stewart’s plane had lost cabin pressure and showed no signs of life. The military jets watched helplessly for thousands of miles until the Stewart’s jet eventually exhausted fuel and crashed in South Dakota.

In January 2008, two airline pilots fell asleep for at least 18 minutes during a flight from one side of Hawaii to the other. The plane passed its destination and headed out to open sea before air traffic controllers raised the pilots, one of whom was later diagnosed with sleep apnea.

Aviation Safety. Pilot fatigue has been an issue in the news recently, with arguments regarding whether pilots should be allowed to take naps, as they are in some other countries.

We’ll certainly be watching closely to see what the investigation reveals.

14 Comments

  1. Gravatar for billyC

    Check out that planned route vs. the flown route. Anybody else see catastrophe written on that?

    I’ll bet those pilots are scared $ hitless someone’s going to rewind the tapes and hear snoring. Then again, they may not have been sleeping. After looking at that actual flight path diagram vs. planned flight, I’d say these boys were celebrating the new reefer reform legislation.

    NWA = Now Where? Airlines

  2. Gravatar for Tommy

    Overshoot, in terms of how much farther they went past MSP, was not 400-500 miles. As the map you included shows, they got about as far as Eau Claire.

    It remains to be seen whether the CVR will have audio from the segment where any orgy would have been in progress. Some reports are saying this plane only had a 30-minute recorder, which would only retain audio from the tail end of the flight.

  3. Gravatar for Jim

    Joe,

    That seems a little sensationalized, don't you think? There's not indication as of yet that it was anything other than what the pilots said - they were arguing.

    Haven't you ever been talking to a passenger and missed a turn? One level of your mind was paying a safe amount of attention to the road, but you missed the turn because you were partially distracted. There is no sign that this was in anyway unsafe.

    Obviously, this is more serious than that. The

    pilots have many lives in their hands. It should be investigated. The pilots should probably be disciplined.

    But there no reason to sensationalize this, anymore than you should deify Sully.

  4. Gravatar for Joe Crumley

    billyC:

    I can't find the planned route anywhere, but it looks pretty straightforward up to the part where they just keep going and going. I do see they were within a 45 minutes or so of Canada, and i heard the Canadian Air Force had been notified.

    I see you've posted this comment on a number of blogs across the internet. What's the plan? Or just being thorough?

    Anyways, thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Gravatar for Joe Crumley

    Tommy:

    I disagree. The point is that they overshot the point 150-200 miles BEFORE the Twin Cities where they start power down and descent. They were still cruising at 37,000 feet over Wisconsin 300-350 miles (okay, maybe I guessed a little high before) beyond where they should have begun descent. Right?

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Gravatar for Joe Crumley

    Jim:

    I know you get the 'orgy' is a joke (hopefully). You seem to be saying that the sleeping speculation is sensationalistic. I can only say that such sensational news outlets as the Wall Street Journal, New Your Times, Star Tribune, etc, all IMMEDIATELY included reference to possible sleeping.

    Interestingly, professional pilots were very quick to come to the sleeping hypothesis. Here's a forum where the problem was noted in realtime as it was happening.

    http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/general_aviation/read.main/4585508/

    The very first response was posted by "Iowan": "Purely speculation, but it looks to me like both pilots fell asleep" The professional pilots seem to say this happens more often than we'd like to think!

    So, no I don't think it's sensationalized. Either way, I think everyone agrees that 80 minutes not paying attention - arguing or slepping or whatever, is 79 minutes too long!

    I greatly appreciate your reading and commenting.

  7. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi

    The only question I want answered is were all flight attendants accounted for as being in the passenger compartment? If not why weren't they suspended or fired? Seems odd that a flight attendant wouldn't just knock on the door and ask, "Is everything alright in there?" Or were we all joining the "Mile High Club"?

  8. Gravatar for Joe Crumley

    Steve:

    I thought flight attendants were barred from the cockpit since reinforced doors were introduced, but not everywhere. Just last year a French flight attendant did a cockpit strip tease on video!

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article749215.ece

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