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


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.