Examining Pilots Who Overshot Airport

The Federal Aviation Administration has revoked the licenses of two pilots of a Northwest Airlines plane that overshot its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles. The pilots said they were so engrossed in their laptops that they lost track of time. Ben Berman, former chief of major accident investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board, offers his insight.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration revoked the licenses of two pilots who flew a Northwest Airlines plane 150 miles past its destination. They have 10 days to appeal the decision. The pilots told investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board that they were engrossed in their personal laptops and lost track of time, while their plane overshot the Minneapolis, St. Paul airport last Wednesday.

We are joined now by Ben Berman. He's a commercial airline pilot and a former chief of major investigations for the NTSB. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. BEN BERMAN (Pilot, Former NTSB Chief of Major Investigations): Thank you very much. Great to be here.

BLOCK: And, Ben, any surprise here that the FAA pulled the licenses of these two pilots?

Mr. BERMAN: Oh, no. No real surprise. It sounds like, you know, that's part of their normal process in a situation like this. And there will be, you know, a lot of steps beyond that where the pilots will appeal. And there's a, kind of a judicial process that will ensue.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about what happened on this airplane. The pilots told the NTSB they were using their laptops to study the new scheduling system that was brought on by the merger of Northwest and Delta, didn't monitor the airplane or calls from air traffic control for about an hour and a half, they were out of contact. When you heard that, what did you think?

Mr. BERMAN: Well, I thought it was incredible, unbelievable, mainly because it's hard to imagine how someone could be out of touch for so long a period of time. But then when you think it through, you start to maybe decompose it into parts. They've lost contact and that could've happened at one point. It's actually a fairly common occurrence. And then they didn't notice that they had lost contact. That's also fairly common, although usually terminated much earlier. And then at some point they didn't notice they were getting close to the destination, and that part I have no way of explaining.

BLOCK: Yeah, that's really a long time. And the only thing - the way they learned about it was a flight attendant called in to say, when we are we going to land? And they realized, whoops, we've already overshot the airport.

Mr. BERMAN: Evidently. Yeah.

BLOCK: Apparently, fighter jets were placed on alert during this time. They weren't actually put into the air, but they were on alert. Clearly this was raising concern on the ground and those messages weren't getting through to the pilots somehow. How would those messages be transmitted to the plane?

Mr. BERMAN: Well, there's lots of ways for the ground to get in contact with a flight. There's a radio frequency that they are talking to them on or were talking to them on. And then there's an emergency frequency that everybody shares and pilots are monitoring. The company, the airline, can send messages through a data link that will result in a chime in the cockpit and a message coming across a printer or a screen. And other planes can be told to contact the flight, you know, the airplanes are up there at 37,000 feet, that's a great antenna height. And so, airplanes can transmit from one to another over great distances on a frequency.

BLOCK: Typically, Ben, on a flight like this, about a three-and-a-half hour flight, they were at cruising altitude, what would pilots be doing?

Mr. BERMAN: Well, on that length of a flight they'd be paying attention to the arrival time at the destination which, you know, there was obviously a breakdown here. They'd be paying attention to their fuel state, the weather. And then there'd be periods of time when they were just monitoring air traffic control and monitoring the airplane and making sure it was continuing to fly where programmed, using an autopilot, and that the controllers don't have any new instructions for them.

And then from time to time they pass from one air traffic control sector to the next and they're told to contact the next controller on a different frequency and that's where the breakdowns in communication usually occur when they do.

BLOCK: Do you see this, what happened with this Northwest flight, as just a freakish occurrence or does it speak to something broader that needs to be taken care of?

Mr. BERMAN: It's kind of hard to tell at this point because they really - the investigation is just beginning. Based on just what's been told right now about pilots getting engrossed in a laptop, it's kind of an egregious dereliction of duty in terms of your primary directive is to fly the airplane or monitor the autopilot as it flies and pay attention to it. And that's what wasn't happening.

So, it's possible, though, since it is sort of unbelievable that they could lose contact with their progress and with what they were doing for so long, it's possible that there was something else going on. We just don't know what it is yet because the investigators haven't asked, found out, been told or revealed it to the public.

BLOCK: Okay, Ben, thank you very much. I'm sorry, we'll have to leave it there. Ben Berman, a commercial airline pilot.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.