Thursday, October 22, 2009

Northwest pilots lose situational awareness, overfly destination

by B. N. Sullivan

NTSB logoThe U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating an incident in which a Northwest Airlines A320 aircraft overflew its destination by approximately 150 miles. The two pilots attributed the incident to a loss of situational awareness due to engaging in a 'heated discussion', according to a press release issued by The NTSB.

From the NTSB:
On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, at 5:56 pm mountain daylight time, an Airbus A320, N03274, operating as Northwest Airlines (NWA) flight 188, became a NORDO (no radio communications) flight at 37,000 feet.

The flight was operating as a Part 121 flight from San Diego International Airport, San Diego, California (SAN) to MSP with 147 passengers and unknown number of crew.

At 7:58 pm central daylight time (CDT), the aircraft flew over the destination airport and continued northeast for approximately 150 miles. The MSP center controller reestablished communications with the crew at 8:14 pm and reportedly stated that the crew had become distracted and had overflown MSP, and requested to return to MSP.

According to the Federal Administration (FAA) the crew was interviewed by the FBI and airport police. The crew stated they were in a heated discussion over airline policy and they lost situational awareness. The Safety Board is scheduling an interview with the crew.

The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) have been secured and are being sent to the NTSB laboratory in Washington, DC.
An article about the incident on the Wall Street Journal Web site suggested that the incident was "a possible case of pilots nodding off at the controls." Presumably an analysis of the CVR contents will clear up whether the pilots were indeed arguing, or whether the cockpit was silent during the period of no radio contact.

UPDATE: The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has issued a statement about actions they took regarding the "unresponsive aircraft".
Fighters from two North American Aerospace Defense Command sites were put on alert yesterday for a Northwest Airlines commercial airliner that was not responding to radio calls from the Federal Aviation Administration. Before the fighters could get airborne, FAA re-established communications with the pilots of the Northwest Airlines commercial airliner and subsequently, the NORAD fighters were ordered to stand down. NORAD does not discuss locations of alerts sites.

UPDATE Oct. 23, 2009: This could be bad news for the investigation of this incident: A new NTSB press release mentions, "The 30 minute solid-state Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) captured a portion of the flight that is being analyzed." If the portion of the flight that the CVR captured is the final 30 minutes, it may not be able to resolve what was happening on the flight deck (and what was not) during the period of radio silence.