Was Flight 188 out of radio contact for three hours? Probably not.

Fox News is reporting that Flight 188 — the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot its Minneapolis destination a few weeks ago — was out of radio contact for three hours.


Sources told FOX News there were three NORDO’s — or non-contacts — the first one occurring shortly after the plane reached cruising altitude out of San Diego. The military was not notified until after the third NORDO — which occurred as the plane approached Minneapolis.

If the insinuation that this is one big hunk of silence is true, it undercuts the pilots’ story that they were too busy on their laptops and it undercuts the assertion of others that they probably fell asleep from the sheer boredom of flying an airliner these days.

A better explanation? Fox News is wrong.

According to the report, the plane lost contact shortly after reaching cruising altitude. That occurred at 5:30 p.m. (Central Time) according to the flight log.

But at 6:18 p.m., the flight changed altitude from 35,000 feet to 37,000 feet. That couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened without an instruction from the ground.

In addition, the FAA letter to the pilots that revoked their licenses said this (click for a larger view):

188_denver.jpg

That’s a typical controller handoff and would not have occurred that way if the pilots weren’t talking to him or her. And that means the flight must have been also handed off properly from controllers in Albuquerque at 6:36 p.m., about 50 minutes earlier.

The letter from the FAA piled on about as much on the two pilots as any letter ever sent to a pilot, and yet it mentioned nothing about losing radio contact earlier in the flight. And all the evidence points to the original story being correct.

At 8:16 p.m., the flight began a descent, the first indication that the pilots were back in control of the airplane and communicating. That’s 52 minutes.

There may well have been periods when the pilots didn’t answer a particular call. But that’s not at all unusual, and it’s not a story.

  • Rich Dietman

    I think you’re right about this Fox report. The fact that there are no details in the story about the purported earlier NORDO incidents suggests there may have been some missed radio calls (which, as you point out, is not uncommon), but that the air route traffic control centers involved didn’t declare that flight 188 was NORDO until it was east of Denver. Alas, another example of an unwillingness to do a little digging in order to get the story right, or in this case, determine that it’s not a story. Good job calling it out.

  • kennedy

    Sloppy reporting. The story quotes the pilot reprimand from the FAA which specifies 91 minutes without communication.

    If the headline is going to dispute the FAA, the story should include facts and info to back it up.

  • Bob Collins

    Oh, kennedy, I’m glad you pointed that out because there are elements of THAT timetable that aren’t making sense either — specifically the 91 minutes.

    Assuming when the plane started making directional changes over Wisconsin was roughly when the pilots started talking to controllers again, 91 minutes puts their loss of communication at 6:45 p.m., about 40 minutes BEFORE the FAA says in the narrative when contact was lost (at handoff between Denver and Minneapolis controllers).

    According to the FAA’s own narrative, the Denver handoff was at 7:23 and the re-establishing of contact was at 8:16 and then it says — for a total of 91 minutes. My math says that’s 53 minutes.

    If it has been 91 minutes, that puts the point of lost contact at 6:45 p.m. and the plane was still under the control of Albuquerque. The flight log reveals the plane would’ve been over the Tonto National Forest, east of Scottsdale, AZ.

    I think the FAA probably added and subtracted wrong.