Officials Probe If Northwest Pilots Were Asleep

fromMPR

Federal officials are investigating why two Northwest Airlines-Delta pilots overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport this week, on a flight from San Diego. Controllers lost contact with the pilots during the flight. The pilots say they missed the airport because they were in a heated argument, but there are also questions of whether they might have fallen asleep.

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Was it fatigue, a heated conversation over airline policy or something else that caused two pilots to fly more than 150 miles past their destination? It happened Wednesday night. Northwest Flight 188 was headed from San Diego to Minneapolis, but it passed the airport and kept going before pilots discovered their mistake and turned around. The case is now under federal investigation, as Tom Weber of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

TOM WEBER: Bob Parker(ph) was aboard Flight 188 Wednesday night which left San Diego late, flew through a storm on the way, and to Parker, seemed to be taking forever to arrive. Parker says he didn't realize anything was wrong until after the plane finally landed in Minneapolis.

Mr. BOB PARKER: And a police officer boarded the plane and said something to the flight attendant who reached on the intercom and said, everyone needs to sit back down in a stern voice.

WEBER: Passengers were allowed to leave a few minutes later. Parker noticed four things as he left the plane. Police were removing some kind of plastic case from the cockpit. The pilots were not out greeting passengers, the flight attendants all looked scared and even more police and men in suits were standing in the jetway ramp between the plane and concourse.

Mr. PARKER: It was strange. You - when you were deplaning, it felt really, really odd.

WEBER: It was only later that he and others learned the plane had overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and flown well into Wisconsin before turning back. Not only that, the pilots were out of radio contact with ground controllers for more than an hour and military jets were put on alert and ready to scramble in pursuit.

Pilots from two other planes in the area were finally able to reach the pilot on a different radio frequency, according to the Associated Press. After reestablishing contact, controllers asked the crew to execute a series of turns to show they were in control of the aircraft - a post 9/11 precaution. Authorities say the pilots reported being in a heated discussion, which is why they missed the airport. Bill Voss, who heads the Flight Safety Foundation in Virginia, isn't sure that's the whole story.

Mr. BILL VOSS (Head, Flight Safety Foundation): It doesn't seem to be logical that you could have that heated of an argument for that long. And there are a lot of visual and audio cues that they should've picked up on.

WEBER: One of those cues on this type of Airbus plane is a video screen in front of both pilots that would've shown where the plane was in relation to its destination. That's according to Ben Berman, a pilot and former NTSB investigator.

Mr. BEN BERMAN (Pilot): Pilots have to do a number of things to prepare for descent. Somewhere, more than a hundred miles from Minneapolis, they should have been doing that.

WEBER: That's also why considerable speculations centers on possible fatigue. The NTSB says it doesn't know yet if the crew fell asleep, though Bill Voss with the Flight Safety Foundation says that will likely be of little consequence to these two pilots, who he says face the real likelihood of being fired.

Mr. VOSS: At the end of the day, in terms for the fate of this crew, I'm afraid it doesn't matter much which one of those you choose. They're both pretty bad situations to have to own up to.

WEBER: But if fatigue is found to have been a factor, it's just the latest incident to highlight the issue, including a fatal plane crash in February near Buffalo. The FAA is updating decades-old rules that mandate just how long commercial pilots can fly and stay on duty. Congress is also acting. Just last week, the House voted to toughen a number of pilot regulations. The names of the fly-over pilots have not been released but they have been suspended while the NTSB investigates.

One thing is known: the plane in this incident appears to have an older model cockpit voice recorder on board, which only retains the last 30 minutes of conversation. That means those crucial moments during the flight when there was no contact with the ground might not be available.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Weber in Saint Paul.

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Inquiry Deepens Into Flight That Overshot Airport

Personnel prepare a Northwest Airlines jet for a flight in Minneapolis. i i

Personnel prepare a Northwest Airlines jet for a flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday. Federal officials are investigating why a Northwest flight bound for Minneapolis from San Diego went 150 miles past its destination before turning around and landing safely. Jim Mone/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Mone/AP
Personnel prepare a Northwest Airlines jet for a flight in Minneapolis.

Personnel prepare a Northwest Airlines jet for a flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday. Federal officials are investigating why a Northwest flight bound for Minneapolis from San Diego went 150 miles past its destination before turning around and landing safely.

Jim Mone/AP

An older-style voice recorder inside the cockpit of a Northwest Airlines plane had only a 30-minute recording capacity, making it more difficult to determine why the pilots went 150 miles beyond their Minneapolis destination before turning around, air safety investigators said Friday.

Flight 188 was out of touch with air traffic controllers for more than an hour Wednesday night, leaving ground personnel concerned the plane was in distress or had been hijacked. Authorities were on the verge of scrambling four military fighter jets to overtake the airplane when it re-established contact about 8:14 p.m. CDT.

Investigators said controllers in Minneapolis and Denver tried repeatedly to get the attention of the crew, even recruiting the pilots of nearby planes to try to reach the plane on another frequency.

FBI agents and airport police boarded the plane after it landed safely in Minneapolis, taking the voice cockpit and flight data recorders and talking to the crew while the 144 passengers waited to deplane.

The pilots explained the incident by saying they were having a heated discussion over airline policy and lost track of where they were. But investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are trying to determine whether the pilots could have fallen asleep.

John Golgia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member, said fatigue levels of flight crews were a growing concern.

"I think it's now time for all of us in aviation to stand up and address these issues of fatigue, how we're going to combat the issues of fatigue, and what kind of technology we can use to enhance the alertness of flight crews," he said.

En route from San Diego to Minneapolis, the plane was in contact with air traffic controllers in Denver as it flew over the Rocky Mountains, but they lost touch as the plane neared Minneapolis.

Denver controllers notified their counterparts in Minneapolis, who also tried to reach the crew without success, Brown said.

Officials suspected Flight 188's radio might still have been tuned to a frequency used by Denver controllers even though the plane had flown beyond their reach, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Union.

Minneapolis controllers don't have the capability of using the Denver frequency, but pilots do. So controllers asked the pilots of other planes to try to raise Flight 188 using the Denver frequency.

Initially, those attempts were unsuccessful, but two pilots finally got through just before the plane turned around, Church said.

After re-establishing contact with the Northwest pilots, controllers were so concerned that the plane might have been hijacked that they asked the pilot to execute a series of turns to show he was in control of the aircraft, Church said.

"Controllers have a heightened sense of vigilance when we're not able to talk to an aircraft. That's the reality post-9/11," he said.

NTSB investigators plan to schedule interviews with the crew. The FBI and airport police interviewed the crew at the time of the incident.

Northwest Airlines officials said they have suspended the pilots until the investigation is complete.

Ben Berman, an airline pilot and former chief of major accident investigations at the NTSB, doubted the pilots' excuse. He said the pilots would ordinarily have begun preparing for landing when the flight was still 100 miles or more away from Minneapolis.

Shop talk "pretty clearly wasn't all that was going on," Berman said.

The jet was over Eau Claire, Wis., when crew members discovered they had overflown their destination and contacted controllers in Minneapolis.

Passengers said they had no idea that anything was wrong.

Andrea Allmon, who had been traveling from San Diego on business, didn't know anything was amiss.

"Everybody got up to get their luggage, and the plane was swarmed by police as we were getting our bags down from the overhead bins," she said.

She said they were kept on the plane briefly while police talked to the crew. Allmon said she was horrified to learn what had happened.

The FAA is updating rules governing how many hours commercial pilots may fly and remain on duty. The NTSB also cautioned government agencies this week about the risks of sleep apnea contributing to transportation accidents.

In January 2008, two go! Airlines pilots fell asleep for at least 18 minutes during a midmorning flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii. The plane passed its destination and was heading out over open ocean before controllers raised the pilots. The captain was later diagnosed with sleep apnea.

Air traffic controllers in Denver had been in contact with the Northwest pilots as they flew over the Rockies, but contact was lost as they neared Minneapolis just before 8 p.m., said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

Denver controllers notified their counterparts in Minneapolis, who also tried to reach the crew without success, Brown said.

With reporting by Tim Nelson of Minnesota Public Radio and wire services

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