Ask The Captain: What Was Going On With Those Northwest Airlines Pilots?

Plane Talk: Got a question? Ask the Captain!

Do you have a question about airline safety, flight etiquette, jet lag, or air travel in general? Submit your question and look for answers in a future column. Answering your questions in our NEW ASK THE CAPTAIN column is, Michael Wiggins, a retired airline pilot who has spent the better part of his life shuttling passengers around the globe.

We'd been planning to launch this column ever since a chance meeting brought Michael onto our radar screen. We KNEW we wanted him to bring his expertise and humor to our YourLifeIsATrip family, but who knew we'd start the dialogue with the question on everyone's lips these days...

by W. M. Wiggins

What was really going on with those Northwest Airline pilots in the cockpit?


About those NWA pilots over flying ( MSP ) Minneapolis/ St. Paul Airport by 150 miles. Jeeeez. It's a reasonable question. How CAN that happen?

The lack of attention to detail is obvious. Someone has to be driving that big ol’ Bus (AIRBUS) and somebody has to be monitoring the radios. And as they say in California, that’s a definite “for sure, for sure” dude.

It sounds to me like a couple of guys had their radio volumes turned down …. way,     w a y,       w   a   y        down. This is an especially bad thing when you are traveling at 500 miles per hour……hummmmmmmmm, divide that (500 mph) by 60 minutes ( 60 minutes is an hour….I think? )…….and you can see that  this “winged” aluminum beast is smokin’ right along at about 8.4 miles per minute.

Now, I believe the reports said they were “out of radio contact” for about 91 minutes……so now multiply 91minutes  by  8.4 miles per minute and voila, you can see at that rate the bad boy ( jet ) would be out of  radio contact for “about” 765 miles.

Yikes !!

Yikes ???  That sounds bad, but things can get worse….if the controller deems that going NORDO ( NO Radio ) may be in conjunction with a hijacking. The controller’s next step could lead to scramble the interceptors (it appears NORAD North American Aerospace Defense Command was not contacted until very, very, very late.)

If that happens, you have transitioned from the Yikes to the……. “Oh   S % * T” phase of flight.

At the same time, it is not that unusual for long stretches of inactivity in radio transmissions ,especially in the late night. However, no contact in ten to 15 minutes should make the pilots ask…..”where is everybody?”

So what was going on in the cockpit that occupied their attention? Could it be the snooze factor? I’d say NO, it’s not behind the clock enough.

Could it be the “library factor?” Books, newspapers, or magazines,. (Who said pilots could not read?) I’d say no to that too.

Could it be heated discussion on bad government or bad management or bad spouses? I’d say no.

Then what? My guess. It’s about scheduling.

Money and time off, all packaged in a computer program. Someone felt they needed to be schooled on the pitfalls of an unfamiliar scheduling program.

My guess is that they were focused was on a computer program.

If this is what happened, it is inexcusable. However, it is very understandable.

There was neither harm nor damage done to any passengers, to any crewmen, or to any aircraft. The plane and the passengers arrived just a tad late. Hey, if the passengers had purchased an “EXCURSION” fare, then an excursion is exactly what they received.

Their failings were not with intent. It was a human error and valuable lessons were learned for other flight crews world wide. Oddly enough, this in turn, should enhance aviation safety as a whole. I am sure the F.A.A. will be busy now cooking up a new procedure.

Some folks are calling for the pilots to receive the rack or whips and chains or the dungeon or even permanent exile from flying. I say no.

Seriously, I look at this event in a positive light. My bet is that NW has created two of the safest pilots in the world. If they are not fired first.


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