Patterico's Pontifications


Northwest Jet Overshoots Airport by 150 Miles

Filed under: Air Security — DRJ @ 5:30 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

A Northwest Airlines flight traveling from San Diego to Minneapolis on Wednesday took a little longer than expected to arrive:

“[The pilots] were at 37,000 feet as they approached the city and fell out of touch with air traffic controllers who tried desperately to reach them.

Ground control feared the worst — a hijacking — and prepared to scramble fighter jets.

The pilots said they were distracted by a heated discussion of airline policy, but experts wonder if they fell asleep. The NTSB may have a hard time confirming what happened, as it’s likely the voice recorder captured only the last 30 minutes of the flight — much of that time after pilots had realized their error and turned the plane back around.
Yet the pilots didn’t discover their mistake Wednesday night until a flight attendant in the cabin contacted them by intercom, said a source close to the investigation who wasn’t authorized to talk publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

By that time, the plane was over Eau Claire, Wis., and the pilots had been out of communication with air traffic controllers for over an hour. Pilots turned the plane back around and landed safely an hour and 15 minutes late, around 9:15 p.m. Wednesday.”

Apparently the conversation was so heated that the pilots didn’t notice cockpit warnings, repeated radio, data message and cell phone calls from air traffic controllers, and the twinkling lights of their destination. Reports say military F-16s were put on alert so this could have been tragic. (Despite 9/11, does it still take 30 minutes to mobilize a response?)

It sounds like these pilots fell asleep and I hope that’s the case because that can be fixed. IMO it’s far worse to imagine a pilot and co-pilot who are so mad they can’t remember to fly the plane.


15 Responses to “Northwest Jet Overshoots Airport by 150 Miles”

  1. One of my Italian friends was on a Turkish flight going to Ankara when he noticed that the plane was flying very low and performing very strangely. When they landed they parked a long way from the terminal, they were told to remain seated, nobody came out of the cockpit, In a few minutes the Turkish police arrived. After some problems with the cockpit door the pilots, both very drunk, were removed in handcuffs. Dumb pilot tricks, not a new thing.

    glenn (757adc)

  2. Cell phone calls? Pilots can have their cell phones switched on during a flight?

    grs (b9e726)

  3. But only on vibrate …

    DRJ (dff2ca)

  4. Now that airlines are charging for baggage, charging $6 for something to drink, etc, it is my understanding that NorthWaste will be sending each of the passengers a bill. It will be to pay the surcharge for the extra miles they got to fly.

    Which brings up another point: will Northwaste credit the frequent fliers with the added miles?

    the friendly grizzly (af1c45)

  5. They weren’t drunk. They may have fallen asleep–possible, given the schedules many crews now fly and the long-distance commuting over half of the pilot force engages in. The FAA rules are about to change thanks to the recent upstate NY commuter aircraft accident that killed everyone on board and was probably, for the most part, due to fatigue.
    The cellphone thing is bogus…they don’t/can’t work up there…and, no, they don’t affect cockpit instrumentation but it’s hard to change the rules when the FAA’s involved. But, again, it’s a moot point since tower reception at cruise altitudes and speeds is problematic.
    Often radios are turned down a little at cruise to reduce the nuisance chatter you listen to as everyone on your freq is checking in and/or being sent to other freqs, given vectors, etc. This can backfire if you get into an involved discussion about anything so you try to keep “one ear open” for your callsign. It can happen but normally all it takes is two attempts at reaching you before it breaks into your consciousness and you respond. However, given the stressed nature of airline careers these days–less-than-adequate rest, long days, lower pay, union/management relations (read: “appalling”), disappearing pensions, shoddy maintenance, among other things–there could have been a discussion that wrapped both front-seaters around the rhetorical axle. Not making an excuse (there isn’t one if you’re a professional pilot), just saying this possibility is credible.
    ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System)–a text-based device that allows direct SATCOM links to dispatch for everything from emergency assistance to weather updates to telling you you have a no-notice urinalysis to do when you land (really…part of the job) should have gotten their attention with its characteristic “ding!” when a message comes in. That’s a bit of a stumper.

    –Current airline pilot (in China as I speak)

    Attila (dcccd4)

  6. The overwhelming probability is they fell asleep. This happened to a Mesa crew in Hawaii last year. The capt had undiagnosed sleep apnea and the FO had a bad night so both were fatigued. It was a sunny early morning flight, and the FO fell into a half awake trance and the capt closed his eyes as the bright sun shone in and went zzzzzzzzzzzzzz for about 15 min as they headed out over the Pacific.

    Cell phones will work in the air at least at lower alitudes. They create an annoying “d-d-d-d-d-d-” kind of tone over the com audio when a call comes in.

    JohninMontreal (d421dc)

  7. Were these Affirmative Action pilots?

    There is a reason that airline has been known as NorthWORST for decades.

    PCD (ba8fe0)

  8. F-16s?? A half hour and they couldn’t be in the air. Another Obama fail!

    Hell, The Wisconsin ANG could get A-10s in the air faster with more firepower.

    PCD (ba8fe0)

  9. 7-Hilarious PCP. Racism at its finest.

    bells bells (08dac2)

  10. – Concur with B B on the racism snark. Totally uncalled for and, well, vicious and stupid. Sorry, gotta call ’em as I see ’em.
    – Cell phones are pretty much useless at the speeds/altitudes RJs (regional jets…the painfully uncomfortable twin jet commuters) fly. Not sure what these guys were flying, though.
    – Scrambling fighters on a wayward commercial airliner is fraught with challenges, especially political ones. Usually, you launch for observation/attention-getting (“Hey!” “You OK?” “What’re you doing?”), not engagement.
    – 150 miles at, say 480 TAS (True Airspeed), no wind, is roughly 19 minutes of flight time…so, let’s say it took ATC a few minutes to determine something was amiss, then they talk about it for awhile, then they decide to call NORAD/NORTHCOM, then the military thinks about it, and THEN the latter decides to respond with a scramble. What’s the alert status? 30 minutes? 15 minutes? 5 minutes? Cockpit alert (sitting in the jet, strapped in)? In short, the fact that they didn’t show up doesn’t surprise me.
    – Hogs out of Wisconsin? No way. They’d never catch an RJ (or much of anything bigger than a Cessna Caravan for that matter). I know. I have 2000+ hours in them.

    Attila (dcccd4)

  11. There was a brief moment in world history in which we assumed the really important jobs – doctors, Senators, airplane pilots, Astronauts, Presidents of the United States — were held by truly exceptional people. Now, not so much.

    They missed the exit ramp — happens to us all. Problem is, they should have been better than that.

    ukuleledave (3aa293)

  12. does it still take 30 minutes to mobilize a response?)

    I have a book to recommend. Touching History tells the story of 9/11 and, among many other interesting facts, points out that US air defense that day included a total of 14 fighters for the entire country. I doubt there are a lot more today.

    The pilots I know use their cellphones in flight although reception is variable. The ban is, no doubt, for the benefit of passengers. I use Bose nouise canceling ear phones on longer flights and am grateful most of the time for them.

    Mike K (addb13)

  13. Missed the exit ramp? I don’t miss an exit ramp when dozens of lives are in my hands. When I’m getting paid NOT to miss an exit ramp. Unacceptable.

    Kayla (1c06e5)

  14. Both the pilot and co-pilot were either asleep or in the grip of a Vulcan mind-meld. Concealing the facts or denying the truth is in nearly everyone’s interest, except of course the good citizens who pay for the ride.

    The pilots, their union, Northworst Air, the Airlines Association, the Feds, airline and airport employees, their unions, even taxi drivers and air sickness remedy makers, everyone except passengers has a stake in looking the other way. So brace yourself for more idiot excuses. Hold your nose and put on hip boots, it’s going to get deep and smelly.

    ropelight (e79e24)

  15. […] the Northwest Airlines jet traveling from San Diego to Minneapolis that overshot its destination and did not respond to radio contacts for over an hour? Today the FAA released the cockpit […]

    Patterico's Pontifications » FAA Releases Northwest Cockpit Recordings (e4ab32)

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