Pilots of Flight 188 had plenty of chance to rest

The sound you hear today is the air going out of the balloon for many airline pilots who’d hoped the story of Flight 188 would focus more attention on pilot work rules they hinted were at the heart of Wednesday’s blunder, when pilots of the Northwest flight failed to land in Minneapolis as intended.

The two pilots involved never claimed to have been asleep, telling investigators they were too busy having a “heated discussion” with each other to land the airplane in the Twin Cities. But many in the media used the incident to amplify ongoing labor strife at airlines over long days and workload; legitimate concerns, of course, but not necessarily relevant to this incident.

Why? Because the pilots had 17 hours of rest time before they began the San Diego to Minneapolis flight, the New York Times reports, citing sources in two different agencies.

That, of course, doesn’t mean the pilots couldn’t have fallen asleep, it just means that if they did fall asleep, it wasn’t because they’d been working too hard in the airline business in the previous hours.

The Times also revealed the extent to which air traffic controllers were alarmed by the situation:

More than a dozen controllers, including those at three radar rooms tracking the flight — one in Denver and two in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area — tried to contact the pilots, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “It was all hands on deck,” Mr. Church said. One Minneapolis-area room made 13 attempts at contact, an official said. The plane was cruising at 37,000 feet about 400 miles west of Minneapolis when the crew stopped responding to air traffic controllers and airline dispatchers an hour and five minutes before its scheduled arrival time of 8:01 p.m., local time.

By the time the crew woke-up/stopped arguing, officials were concerned about the possibility the plane was hijacked, ordering the crew to make a series of turns to prove they were in control of the plane. Why it took authorities more than an hour to consider the possibility of a threat to the Twin Cities, and why nearby air defense systems weren’t employed just in case remains an unanswered question, and likely will remain an unanswered question until oversight officials — Congress — starts asking it.

Meanwhile, first officer Richard Cole does himself no favors in an interview with the Associated Press. “It was not a serious event, from a safety issue. I would tell you more, but I’ve already told you way too much,” he said.

He also undercut the original story the FAA said the pilots told investigators. “We were not asleep; we were not having an argument; we were not having a fight,” Cole said.

“I can tell you that airplanes lose contact with the ground people all the time. It happens. Sometimes they get together right away; sometimes it takes awhile before one or the other notices that they are not in contact.”

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