Flight 188: Making it add up

In the aftermath of the wayward Northwest Flight 188, the initial pilots’ stories aren’t the only ones that don’t add up. Another is the reasons given for not intercepting the plane as a potential terrorist threat.

By now you’ve probably seen the terse press release from the North American Air Defense Command explaining its role:

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Fighters from two North American Aerospace Defense Command sites were put on alert yesterday for a Northwest Airlines commercial airliner that was not responding to radio calls from the Federal Aviation Administration. Before the fighters could get airborne, FAA re-established communications with the pilots of the Northwest Airlines commercial airliner and subsequently, the NORAD fighters were ordered to stand down. NORAD does not discuss locations of alerts sites.

No further information will be provided as the National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation.

NORAD is the bi-national Canadian and American command that is responsible for the air defense of North America and maritime warning. The command has three subordinate regional headquarters: the Alaskan NORAD Region at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska; the Canadian NORAD Region at Winnipeg, Manitoba; and the Continental NORAD Region at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The command is poised to provide a multilayered defense to detect, deter and prevent potential threats from flying over the airspace of the United States and Canada.

NORAD’s mission is carried out in close collaboration with homeland defense, security, and law enforcement partners.

Like so many other elements of the story, things don’t add up.

A silent jetliner is heading toward a major American city and the military didn’t intercept it. Why not? The threat the situation posed was demonstrated clearly on 9/11.

“Before the fighters could get airborne, FAA re-established communications with the pilots of the Northwest Airlines commercial airliner and subsequently.”

Based on the facts that have been released, this sentence in the press release suggests there was a significant delay in the time between the FAA knew the plane was in an uncertain situation, and the time it took for the military to be informed and/or respond.

According to officials, the plane stopped talking to controllers while it was over Kansas. The plane’s flight path, however, only took it over a sliver of Kansas, specifically over Goodland, Kansas. The plane was over Goodland at 7:03 p.m. on Wednesday evening, while it was still under the direction of air traffic controllers in Colorado.

According to the plane’s flight record, it did not change its flight path until 8:15 p.m., when we can safely assume the pilots either (a) stopped fighting with each other or (b) woke up and realized what was happening.

The fact that NORAD says the flight wasn’t intercepted because by the time fighter jets could be launched, Minneapolis controllers re-established contact, invites us to see when the jets could have intercepted the airliner.

NORAD won’t say where the fighters were stationed that were “on alert,” but it’s not hard to figure out. Madison has the most active Air National Guard base in the Upper Midwest. Indeed, CNN confirms that Madison was the base on alert.

Goodland, Kansas, is 600 miles by air. The jet didn’t pass over Minneapolis St. Paul until 7:53 p.m. — 50 minutes after it “went dark.” The 115th Fighter Wing in Madison flies F-16 jets. F-16s fly about 300 knots per hour in cruise, but can fly much faster when they’ve got a good reason to. F-16 pilots I’ve talked to say the fastest they’ve gone is in the vicinity of 800 knots, so let’s just say with an American city under a possible threat, they’d got about 700 knots — that’s 805 mph.

Madison is 198 miles from Minneapolis St. Paul or about 15 minutes for an F-16 in a hurry. If the military wanted to intercept a threat before it reached Minneapolis St. Paul, the area around Redwood Falls would’ve been the place to do it. That’s 20 minutes away for an “on alert” F-16 in Madison.

To have been able to do that, the order to intercept would’ve had to have been given by 7:34 p.m., or almost a half hour after the plane “went dark.” That obviously didn’t happen. The military either didn’t know about a plane that had been flying without being in contact for a half an hour, or they did know about it and the decision was made not to intercept the possible threat. We don’t know; nobody’s talking.

“I’ve told you more than I needed to,” Keith Holloway of the National Transportation Safety Board told MPR’s Marty Moylan today after telling him, well, nothing.

Taking NORAD’s press release at face value, there’s still the question of why the planes weren’t in the air at all. Let’s assume it’s one minute before contact was re-established (i.e. 8:14 p.m.). That still means that an hour and 13 minutes after a jetliner stopped communicating with the ground controllers, the military still had not taken steps to intercept it.

It’s true, however, that the plane’s altitude hadn’t changed over that time, indicating no apparent threat, but if it had been under the control of hijackers, waiting until it did to launch jets to intercept it would’ve been — like 9/11 — far too little and far too late.

In a statement today, the Transportation Security Administration provided little insight into a simple question:

TSA was aware of and monitored the situation working with our federal and stakeholder partners. As part of our procedures for events of this nature, TSA protocol included checking possible screening anomalies from the departing airport, checking to see if Federal Air Marshals were onboard, notification to the airline, as well as TSA and DHS leadership. TSA also participated in briefing conference calls with other federal partners and continued to monitor the situation.

Coincidentally, an aircraft was intercepted by fighter jets on Wednesday. The pilot of a small plane stopped communicating (it turns out, he was likely dead or incapacitated) over Indiana and fighter jets followed it until it crashed. (Update: This is incorrect. There was an interception of a plane in Indiana, but it was on September 30, not the same day as Flight 188.)

In Minnesota, of course, everything turned out fine. But what if it hadn’t? What questions would we be asking today?

MPR’s Marty Moylan is asking some of them. Look for his report tonight on MPR’s All Things Considered.


The “they fell asleep” story is one that is being driven by the union, but so far it’s not substantiated by any of the facts in the case.

Let’s assume the pilots fell asleep. First, there were only two flights into San Diego on Wednesday that the pilots could’ve been on. One was a 9 a.m. flight out of Memphis, the other was a 9 a.m. flight out of Minneapolis St. Paul. If they weren’t flying (or “deadheading”) either of those, then they likely spent the night in San Diego.

If they did fall asleep over Kansas, and they did fly the morning flights and turn around and fly Flight 188, they fell asleep less than 12 hours after their workday started — and they fell asleep at the same time. That’s not ideal as far as working conditions go, but it’s not unusually harsh, either.

And, finally, if they did fall asleep — and if the FAA is accurately portraying their original story about a heated discussion — that means the pilots concocted a pretty bizarre story to cover for another pretty bizarre story, and it means they lied to federal investigators, which will get you charged with a felony in a hurry.


Crew rest is always an issue, even if these pilots didn’t fall asleep. Current rules call for 8 hours “rest” but what constitutes “rest”? To the airlines, if it takes a pilot 1/2 an hour to get to the airport, that’s included as ‘rest.” Legislation that’s been filed seeks to change that definition.


It’s not likely. Most CVRs record only 30 minutes. Possibly not. The airlines are only required to record the last 30 minutes of cockpit conversation. (They can record up to 2 hours as a commenter noted below). The plane landed around 9:05. Figure another 10 minutes to taxi in, and shut down and it’s 9:15. The first indication the pilots started flying the airliner again was around 8:47. In other words, there’s not likely to be either a lot of shouting or a lot of snoring on the tape. Conspiracy theorists will have a field day with that factoid.


That’s what a story from the Associated Press (written from Washington) seems to say, but there’s a flaw. The weather. At the time the plane few over the Twin Cities, the weather observations said there was an overcast layer of clouds at 800 feet above the ground.

Update 6:10 p.m. After my conversation with Tom Crann on All Things Considered tonight, I got this interesting message from a reader/listener:

It doesn’t make a huge difference, but the speed estimates that you gave for the F16 seem to be a little bit on the low end. While the pilots you have spoken to may not have flown faster than 800 mph or so, by the book the F16 should cruise around 500 MPH and top out at over 1200 MPH in a hurry for any of the engine variants. This changes your estimated Madison-Minneapolis time to about 10 minutes.

I didn’t use the sender’s name because I don’t have his position but he’s right, an F-16 can fly as fast as about 1300. I deliberately used more conservative numbers because a jet flying at 1300 doesn’t have a lot of fuel left to fly around with an Airbus and because I thought it best to be conservative when questioning the timetable of the NORAD spokesman.

But, for the heck of it, let’s assume the fighters were 10 minutes from here and they waited until the last possible minute to launch — which, of course, they did. That means they could’ve launched as late as 7:54 to arrive here at 8:04. At 8:04, the plane was directly over the Mississippi River, just south of the Lake Street bridge.

The point remains the same: By waiting as long as they did, NORAD (or the FAA) assured that if it had been hijacked by terrorists intent on harming the Twin Cities, the jets were not in a position — for whatever reason — to get into a position to stop it.