Tales from the flight deck

Note: This post has been updated to include an interview with a passenger.


This has not been a particularly good week for the public image of the nation’s airline pilots. Earlier this week, a Delta 767 landed on a taxiway in Atlanta instead of a runway.

And a few moments ago, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a news release detailing a puzzling lapse by a Northwest Airlines flight crew over Minneapolis yesterday:

On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, at 5:56 pm mountain daylight time, an Airbus A320, N03274, 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 147 passengers and unknown number of crew.

At 7:58 pm central daylight time (CDT), the aircraft flew over the destination airport and continued northeast for approximately 150 miles. The MSP center controller reestablished communications with the crew at 8:14 pm and reportedly stated that the crew had become distracted and had overflown MSP, and requested to return to MSP.

According to the Federal Administration (FAA) the crew was interviewed by the FBI and airport police. The crew stated they were in a heated discussion over airline policy and they lost situational awareness. The Safety Board is scheduling an interview with the crew.

The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) have been secured and are being sent to the NTSB laboratory in Washington, DC.

The plane landed around 9:15 last evening, more than an hour late. The pilot was all business by the time he called the tower for permission to land (liveATC.com):

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There are so many obvious safety violations here, it’s hard to know where to start. But the biggest one is the lapse in what safety experts call “cockpit resource management.” ideally, CRM is when the captain and first officer are working as a team to ensure the safe conclusion of a flight.

When a flight crew is having a “heated argument” that they miss their intended airport and keep flying, well, you’re looking at the end of a couple of airline careers.

Let’s review a few items from the Wayback Machine: Even a cockpit full of drunken pilots was able to hold it together and find the airport.

Here’s what happens when there’s a lack of proper crew resource management.

There are other questions, too, obviously. For example, if a airliner full of people suddenly goes silent, did any military jets scramble to intercept it? And if not, why not?

If you want to watch this play out on a forum for airline pilots, go here.

Update 5:01 p.m. – Bach Parker of St. Louis Park was on the flight. He was returning from a business trip to San Diego. Listen to the entire interview. He describes the scene as passengers were disembarking, noting that a case was removed from the cockpit and several “dark suits” were standing by.

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Update 6:19 p.m. – On the question of whether there was a Department of Homeland Security response, this reply (by e-mail) from Kristin Lee, the assistant administrator in the Office of Strategic Communications & Public Affairs Transportation Security Administration:

TSA’s Transportation Security Operations Center was aware of the issue and worked with our federal partners to monitor the situation.

Another good reminder to me that when you’re talking to the federal government, be very specific about what you want to know, such as “did you scramble any jets to intercept the aircraft?”

Update 6:36 p.m. The Associated Press reports:

The FAA notified the military, which put Air National Guard fighter jets on alert at two locations. As many as four planes could have been scrambled, but none ever took to the air.

“After FAA re-established communications, we pulled off,” said Michael Kucharek, a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman.

Update 8:22 a.m. 10/23 – Here’s my appearance with Cathy Wurzer on MPR’s Morning Edition:<br /

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    Oct. 23, 2009

(h/t: Than Tibbetts, Ryan Mathre)

(Image: This is the radar track for the flight)