Flight 188: The explanation

The NTSB just issued this release:


In its continuing investigation of an Airbus A320 that overflew the Minneapolis-St Paul International/Wold-Chamberlain Airport (MSP), the National Transportation Safety Board has developed the following factual information: On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, at 5:56 pm mountain daylight time, an Airbus A320, operating as Northwest Airlines (NWA) flight 188, became a NORDO (no radio communications) flight at 37,000 feet. The flight was operating as a Part 121 flight from San Diego International Airport, San Diego, California (SAN) to MSP with 144 passengers, 2 pilots and 3 flight attendants.

Both pilots were interviewed separately by NTSB investigators yesterday in Minnesota. The following is an overview of the interviews:

* The first officer and the captain were interviewed for over 5 hours combined.

* The Captain, 53 years old, was hired in 1985. His total flight time is about 20,000 hours, about 10,000 hours of A-320 time of which about 7,000 was as pilot in command.

* The First Officer, 54 years old, was hired in 1997. His total flight time is about 11,000 hours, and has about 5,000 hours on the A-320.

* Both pilots said they had never had an accident, incident or violation.

* Neither pilot reported any ongoing medical conditions.

* Both pilots stated that they were not fatigued. They were both commuters, but they had a 19-hour layover in San Diego just prior to the incident flight. Both said they did not fall asleep or doze during the flight.

* Both said there was no heated argument.

* Both stated there was a distraction in the cockpit. The pilots said there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from ATC even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio. Also, neither pilot noticed messages that were sent by company dispatchers. They were discussing the new monthly crew flight scheduling system that was now in place as a result of the

merger. The discussion began at cruise altitude.

* Both said they lost track of time.

* Each pilot accessed and used his personal laptop computer while they discussed the airline crew flight scheduling procedure. The first officer, who was more familiar with the procedure was providing instruction to the captain. The use of personal computers on the flight deck is prohibited by company policy.

* Neither pilot was aware of the airplane’s position until a flight attendant called about 5 minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival (ETA). The captain said, at that point, he looked at his primary flight display for an ETA and realized that they had passed MSP. They made contact with ATC and were given vectors back to MSP.

* At cruise altitude – the pilots stated they were using cockpit speakers to listen to radio communications, not their headsets.

* When asked by ATC what the problem was, they replied “just cockpit distraction” and “dealing with company issues”.

* Both pilots said there are no procedures for the flight attendants to check on the pilots during flight.

The Safety Board is interviewing the flight attendants and other company personnel today. Air traffic control communications have been obtained and are being analyzed.

Preliminary data from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) revealed the following:

* The CVR recording was 1/2 hour in length.

* The cockpit area microphone channel was not working during this recording. However, the crew’s headset microphones recorded their conversations.

* The CVR recording began during final approach, and continued while the aircraft was at the gate.

* During the hours immediately following the incident flight, routine aircraft maintenance provided power to the CVR for a few minutes on several occasions, likely

recording over several minutes of the flight.

The FDR captured the entire flight which contained several hundred aircraft parameters including the portion of flight where there was no radio communication from the flight crew. Investigators are examining the recorded parameters to see if any information regarding crew activity during the portion of flight where radio contact was lost can be

obtained.

The “lost track of time” excuse is a difficult one to believe since the process to descend begins many miles away from a destination. So the pilots didn’t just overshoot their destination by 150 miles, they overshot it by more than 250 miles.

Other than the usual union procedures, there doesn’t appear to be anything stopping Northwest from firing the pilots now that they’ve admitted they were using their personal laptops rather than flying their airplane. As the release said, using a personal laptop is prohibited (so are things like bringing personal reading material on board). The aviation system is very keen on sending messages to other pilots who might be tempted to pull out the laptop on a flight.

The fairly cavalier attitude the pilots displayed in short interviews with the media betrays the reality of their situation. Their job — and their only job — was to fly the airplane. They didn’t.

What’s left to debate? This is no longer about fatique, the Wall St. Journal reports, it’s about complacency.

Meanwhile, we might get an answer tomorrow about when FAA authorities first contacted homeland security officials about concerns the flight may have fallen into the hands of hijackers. Janet Napolitano, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, will be interviewed by Cathy Wurzer tomorrow on MPR’s Morning Edition.

Update 5:21 p.m. – News release from Delta. It pretty much says the two pilots will be fired.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) today issued a statement regarding the company’s cooperation with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the investigation of Northwest Flight 188. Delta and its Northwest operating subsidiary continue to openly and fully cooperate with the NTSB and FAA to complete the investigation. The pilots in command of Northwest Flight 188 remain suspended until the conclusion of the investigations into this incident.

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.

Delta CEO Richard Anderson said: “Nothing is more important to Delta than safety. We are going to continue to cooperate fully with the NTSB and the FAA in their investigations.”

The NTSB earlier today issued a public release highlighting the initial findings of its investigation into the incident, including evidence that the pilots involved said they were distracted at cruise altitude between San Diego and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The NTSB’s press release stated that the pilots said in interviews that “there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from ATC even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio … neither pilot noticed messages that were sent by company dispatchers … both said they lost track of time …(and) each pilot accessed and used his personal laptop computer while they discussed the airline crew flight scheduling procedure.”

Update 5:42 p.m. – Sen. Al Franken is jumping in:


In light of the stunning admission that pilots were using personal laptops during last week’s flight, which overshot its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles and lost radio contact for 75 minutes, U.S. Sen. Franken (D-Minn.) is calling for a ban on the use of personal laptops in the cockpit.

Sen. Franken has already requested an expedited National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation that re-examines the rules and regulations governing cockpit behavior.

“We don’t tolerate texting while driving and we’re certainly not standing for it while flying,” said Sen. Franken. “It would be unthinkable to allow a driver to use a laptop. A pilot responsible for the lives of dozens if not hundreds of passengers needs to be that much more focused on the job.”

NTSB preliminary findings have stated that the source of the distraction was not a “heated discussion of airline policy” as originally claimed, but the use of laptops in the cockpit, which can obscure the view of dashboard instruments and further distract pilots.

While the use of personal computers was prohibited by company policy, there is no national ban on the behavior. Sen. Franken is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to create a regulation prohibiting any pilot of any airline from using a personal laptop while flying a plane.

If the company already bans the laptops, what’s the point of a “national ban”? The pilots already can be criminally charged if their actions put the lives of their passengers at risk.

  • Joy

    //* Both stated there was a distraction in the cockpit. The pilots said there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from ATC even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio. Also, neither pilot noticed messages that were sent by company dispatchers. They were discussing the new monthly crew flight scheduling system that was now in place as a result of the

    merger//

    well there you go another distraction caused by HOPE and CHANGE

  • Tyler

    Joy, what in the world are you talking about? Are you trying to link Obama to the Delta/Northwest merger, and consequently to two pilots who were negligent in their on-the-job duties?

    Because none of those things are related in any way.

    My 2 cents: does World of Warcraft count as “scheduling procedure”? How good is the wifi from cruising altitude, anyway?

  • Dave

    The first reader comment above makes no sense, unless its author is also blaming our dreary weekend on HOPE and CHANGE.

    As for the pilots, firing is excessive, but a long suspension is warranted.

  • Jess

    Didn’t the Delta/Northwest merger start in early 2K8?

    Virgin should pick these two pilots up (assuming they’re let go) to promote the in-flight wiFi.

  • Joy

    a new scheduling system,(change) via the merger,( hope )

  • justin h

    Clear proof the FAA doesn’t know what kind of interference it’s talking about from electronic devices.

  • Craig

    If I was on the flight I might have noted to the flight attendent that something might be wrong, when there was no announcement about preparing for landing. Anybody paying attention to flight time would have known something was not right when there was no descent announcement. As noted, they really overshot MSP by 250 miles. It will be a challenge for the union to save their jobs. It was the flight attendent that initated the course correction.

  • Jim!!!

    My guess was they were texting on cell phones. Not too far off!

  • Bob Collins

    The thing about this story is what the pilots did was so incredibly UNnatural for pilots, that it’s amazing two people did it.

    Did I detect a slight air of questioning in that release about how it is the cockpit recorder just happened to have only enough recording ability so that it only captured the conversation AFTER the pilots started paying attention again.

    I mean, sure, it could be just a coincidence. On the other hand, the story is already bizarre enough that another bizarre twist would hardly be surprising. (g)

  • Joy

    //The thing about this story is what the pilots did was so incredibly UNnatural for pilots, that it’s amazing two people did it. ///

    yes, Bob.

    But do we know that the pilots are really who they say they are

    or

    are they actors?….hmmmmm?

  • Bob Collins

    It does bring up an interesting question:

    Would you rather be on a plane that’s overshot its destination because the pilots were on their laptops, or would you rather be on the ground for 6 hours in Rochester on a plane that’s grounded by the weather?

  • Jim!!!

    How close were they to running out of fuel? I think I’d rather be on the ground.

  • Jim!!!

    Were said laptops confiscated and searched?

  • Michelle

    Bob, there was a story on MPR last week that the type of CVR on that plane only records in 30 minute intervals, so the fact that only the last 30 minutes of the flight (time after the pilots realized their error) was recorded. Does that sound right to you?

    Unless we learn something new to change the picture of what happened on this flight, these events are absolutely grounds for dismissal, not just suspension. You don’t update your facebook status when you are responsible for 149 people in an airplane at cruising altitude.

  • Tracy

    The above comment from Joy – ‘well there you go another distraction caused by HOPE and CHANGE’ – come on! Seriously, you can’t really believe there is some connection?!

  • Joy

    People,

    Like alcoholism, these two pilots are only a SYMTOM of much much deeper lying issues.

    More digging..

  • Bob Collins

    Piggybacking

    //Bob, there was a story on MPR last week that the type of CVR on that plane only records in 30 minute intervals, so the fact that only the last 30 minutes of the flight (time after the pilots realized their error) was recorded. Does that sound right to you?

    Actually, I reported that first, then someone else picked up on it. If it’s a coincidence, it sure fits nicely into the whole picture.

    //Like alcoholism, these two pilots are only a SYMTOM of much much deeper lying issues.

    There are clearly problems with the airline industry and the NWA-Delta work rules. But the quick rush to make it a “they were sleeping” angle because that would benefit the union and pilots who want it to be discussed openly, was fairly well over the top.

    The bottom line to THIS story: These are two really poor pilots, who will soon be ex-pilots.

    No matter how bad things are at Delta/NWA, there’s simply no excuse for what happened here and most pilots will privately admit to being embarrassed by them both.

    I think some union officials and pilots tried to portray these guys as victims. They’re not victims.

    //How close were they to running out of fuel? I think I’d rather be on the ground.

    I’m not sure why this plane had so much fuel on board because NWA paid plenty to haul fuel around the skies, but it obviously did, and it obviously had enough extra or else they wouldn’t have ordered the pilots to make a series of turns to prove they were in control of the plane.

  • kennedy

    No question, the pilots displayed poor judgement and were clearly not in control of the situation. Sleep, distraction, whatever. They were not doing their jobs.

    The bigger concern for me is the lack of security response. How did the plane get over the Twin Cities metro without any intervention? There were people on the ground who were aware of the situation and chose to let the plane fly over.

    As the plane approached Minneapolis, the seucrity risk was increasing. Who committed the bigger error, oblivious pilots or a security team that chose to do nothing?

  • Bob Collins

    I think I wrote on this last week that the larger question *is* the security response. The entire air transportation system — including what happens when you show up to fly — is based on the assumption that you’re a terrorist until you prove otherwise.

    Clearly, I think, there was something that prevented timely action based on the assumption that the plane had fallen into hijackers’ hands. Whether that was because the FAA was slow to report it to the air defense system or the air defense system was slow to get into the sky, I obviously don’t know.

    I *do* know that small planes — which have never been used in an attack on the United States and pose almost no threat to civilians, have been intercepted consistently for much less, and with — obviously — a much greater (over) reaction.

    Here we have a “missile” that may or may not be under friendly control — that has been demonstrated to be used in an attack, operating in an environment where evil intent is assumed, and we can’t get anybody off the ground if for no other reason than to go up and take a look “just in case”?

    That’s almost as mind boggling as the question of why nobody is else has noticed this.

  • Joy

    //Clearly, I think, there was something that prevented timely action based on the assumption that the plane had fallen into hijackers’ hands. Whether that was because the FAA was slow to report it to the air defense system or the air defense system was slow to get into the sky, I obviously don’t know.//

    Distraction in the air and on the ground. A well orchestrated symphony of disaster.

    They could use this as an episode on Desperate Housewives.

  • Dan

    Concerning poor judgement by pilots, has there been any additional information concerning the plane that landed on a taxi-way in Atlanta?

  • Bob Collins

    Haven’t heard anything lately on that, Dan.

  • David

    Kennedy — what do you suggest? Shooting it down? It was still at cruise altitude. It’s not like it flew over the city at 8,000 feet. Yes, the flight was NORDO, but other than that, it was not showing any signs of terrorist activity.

  • dan

    Bob

    That is my concern. I feel that a jet landing on a taxiway has more serious implications than a plane that overflew MSP by 15 minutes. The pilots landing in Atlanta should have been alert and taking direction from air traffic control.

  • Bob Collins

    //Kennedy — what do you suggest? Shooting it down? It was still at cruise altitude. It’s not like it flew over the city at 8,000 feet. Yes, the flight was NORDO, but other than that, it was not showing any signs of terrorist activity.

    Neither are the people who have to take their shoes off at the airport. But, kidding aside, the correlation between launching a fighter and shooting a commercial plane down is tenuous at best. Fighter jets intercept small planes — who also aren’t exhibiting signs of terrorist activity — ALL THE TIME.

    Fighter jets intercepted a small Mooney on the same day as Flight 188. It didn’t exhibit any terrorist threat either. It only stopped communicating with the ground. It turned out the pilot was dead. Four fighters were sent up to take a look.

    And that’s really why the question is so relevant. Can putting an eyeball on the plane provide people with more information about what might be going on than people on the ground calling it — and getting no answer — for an hour?

    I think the answer to that is obviously yes.

    So I’ll repeat the question I’ve posed since starting this subject days ago thta hasn’t been answered once: What’s the harm in going up and taking a look?

    By the way, I think it’s dangerous to limit the definition — after just one attack by air on the U.S. — of what constitutes a “terrorism” profile in airliner actions.

  • Bob Collins

    //That is my concern. I feel that a jet landing on a taxiway has more serious implications than a plane that overflew MSP by 15 minutes. The pilots landing in Atlanta should have been alert and taking direction from air traffic control.

    It’s not an either-or situation. But — as Jeff Skiles, the first officer on the Hudson River US Airways flight, pointed out, it’s very unusual for jets to have enough fuel for a 300 mile diversion.

    The FARs require enough fuel to reach an intended destination and at least 45 minutes beyond. This plane landed an hour late.

    Someone was living right with some decisions earlier in the day.

  • Joy

    //Concerning poor judgement by pilots, has there been any additional information concerning the plane that landed on a taxi-way in Atlanta?

    //That is my concern. I feel that a jet landing on a taxiway has more serious implications than a plane that overflew MSP by 15 minutes. The pilots landing in Atlanta should have been alert and taking direction from air traffic control.

    //And that’s really why the question is so relevant. Can putting an eyeball on the plane provide people with more information about what might be going on than people on the ground calling it — and getting no answer — for an hour?

    I suppose if you made all the right social connections regarding those employeed with the airlines/air traffic control you could create a huge disaster via distraction.

  • Kristi

    How difficult would it be to put an actual eye in the sky, like a camera in the cockpit on commercial flights…?

    I’m sure the airlines would fight the added cost, but perhaps imposing a large fine every time the NTSB/FAA/FBI (I heard the feds were waiting at the gate at MSP) had to become involved in a “human error” incident, might make the cameras the lesser of two expenses.

    I’m not a fan of big brother, but there are cameras on city busses, in government centers, and in Target stores, why not in cockpits?

  • Elizabeth T

    well, I’m trying to catch up on a week-or-so’s worth of news.

    I’ve never understood how someone could say “using your electronic devices” will interfere with the plane’s navigational/communications equipment. My laptop is going to prevent the plan from operating? Maybe that’s the problem … the pilots’ lap tops are what messed the system up.

    Seriously …

    The closest I’ve ever come to being a pilot or operating an aircraft was as a kid, standing in the cockpit next to my dad while he was flying. … I’ve seen the inside of modern planes, which are just as overwhelming with instrumentation. “I couldn’t find the right dial” sounds more plausible. Perhaps i am maligning their honesty … but “I was too busy with my laptop” sounds totally implausible.

    Me being distracted by it, while in a cockpit? Sure. I’m not trained to pay attention and understand all of the beeps & whistles one hears in the pilot’s seat. It would be white noise to me. But, put me in my old laboratory, and no matter how focused I got on my computer, I would still notice that my instruments were making the wrong noise.

    The government spends tons of money “just checking” on things. Highway police patrols; NCLB exams; insurance cards, etc. One asked why MSP didn’t respond sooner? – people are too worried about being being wrong. They’re worried they’ll be blamed; they’ll be embarrassed; they’ll be penalized.

    I’m amazed that none of the passengers are reported to have questioned the flight attendants. After all of the self-serving PR after September 11, all of the “we’ll never forget” … well, I guess we’ve forgotten. Seriously … what would make a passenger to ask what was going on? While the passenger has no authority over the plane … didn’t they worry?

    Equally seriously … what if this had been November 2001? Would our response have been the same? No. What would we have done then? Called out the fighter planes. And why didn’t we do it now? well, that is the $64,000 question.

    BTW: over-fly 150 mi. or stuck on tarmac …? Any time a problem is occuring on an airplane, I think my solution would be on the ground.

  • John

    It’s obvious. They were doing it.