It’s Not About Minneapolis, Really!

By now I’m sure you have heard about the two commercial airline pilots who overshot the Minneapolis International Airport by 150 miles at 37,000 feet on October 21 before circling back to land.

Air traffic controllers lost radio contact with Northwest Flight 188, carrying 147 passengers, for 90 minutes Oct. 21. The pilots failed to respond to numerous radio messages from controllers in Denver and Minneapolis. Other pilots also tried to raise the Northwest pilots, and their airline’s dispatchers sent text messages by radio. The pilots said they were brought back to awareness when a flight attendant contacted them on the aircraft’s intercom five minutes before they were scheduled to land.

Timothy Cheney, the captain, and Richard Cole, the first officer, told National Safety Transportation Board investigators that they lost track of time because they had removed their headsets, broke out their laptops, and were involved in a “concentrated period of discussion” about the company’s pilot scheduling system. Cole and Cheney said they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, instructed the captain on monthly flight crew scheduling. They said they weren’t listening to the radio or watching cockpit flight displays during that period. The plane’s radio was also still tuned to the frequency used by Denver controllers after the San Diego-to-Minneapolis flight had flown beyond their reach.

Delta (which owns Northwest) said that using laptops in the cockpit is against the airline’s policies and vowed to terminate pilots for the infraction while Federal Aviation Administration Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt revoked the licenses of the two pilots.

The Back Story

The other story which has not gotten nearly as much press, is that Babbitt acknowledged that air traffic controllers didn’t notify the military as quickly as they should have when they lost contact with Flight 188. The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday that controllers waited about 40 minutes after losing contact with the plane before notifying the military. While fighters from two sites were put on alert for the plane, none made it into the air before controllers regained contact with the pilots.

“The plane followed its filed flight plan, the transponder remained on, and the plane did not send any emergency or distress signals. However, the controllers should have notified NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) more quickly that the plane was not responding,” Babbitt said in a statement.

The other story which has not gotten nearly as much press, is that Babbitt acknowledged that air traffic controllers didn’t notify the military as quickly as they should have when they lost contact with Flight 188. The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday that controllers waited about 40 minutes after losing contact with the plane before notifying the military. While fighters from two sites were put on alert for the plane, none made it into the air before controllers regained contact with the pilots.

“The plane followed its filed flight plan, the transponder remained on, and the plane did not send any emergency or distress signals. However, the controllers should have notified NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) more quickly that the plane was not responding,” Babbitt said in a statement.

Military jets are routinely scrambled in the case of hijackings and “runners,” planes that do not answer or do not heed air traffic controllers. The FAA has a detailed hijacking manual — supervisors are notified and the FAA command center near Washington and the FBI are put on alert. But for some reason, none of this happened when flight 188 went out of contact. In the wake of 9/11, it scares the heck out of me that pilots aboard a commercial airliner failed to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and the controllers didn’t escalate the issue for 40 minutes.

What if the plane was hijacked and bad guys were planning to take out US Bancorp Center? I hope that Congress investigates the delay and does something about it, like putting better processes and procedures into place in case an aircraft goes out of contact for an extended period of time again.

I’m guessing that if a pair of fighters showed up outside of their cockpit, the scheduling discussion would have been put on the back burner while the pilots got back to job number one – flying their aircraft.

United Airlines Might Be On To Something

I travel frequently for my job and have Premier status on United Airlines. Besides the convenience of having San Francisco International Airport as a United Hub, one of the reasons that I like to fly United is because I am a flying buff, and  channel 9 on most of United’s flights offers From The Flight Deck. This feature allows passengers to listen to air traffic communications while in flight. The channel is available at the discretion of the cockpit crew and some don’t enable it, but most do. Unless you know the jargon, much of the conversation might sound like gibberish but if you know how to interpret it, you can gain a wealth of information about what’s going on around in the air around you.

The Transportation Security Administration puts armed Air Marshals on board selected flights to protect passengers and crew from crime and acts of terrorism. But their presence does not absolve passengers from being vigilant to possible threats. For example, if I were on United flight 888 and I heard traffic controllers and other pilots calling my flight over and over for more than 10 minutes without response, I might find a flight attendant and let him or her know that something doesn’t seem quite right with the pilots.

All Together Now

If passengers were listening in to the communications on board Northwest flight 188, and just one of them noticed that there was no air traffic at all since they were on the wrong frequency, heard the ignored instruction to change frequency, or heard multiple unanswered calls to the pilots, this incident might not have gone on for so long.

In this age of increased vigilance, I am thinking an FAA requirement for all commercial aircraft within US airspace to offer an in-flight air traffic communications channel might not be such a bad idea.

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