The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has just released a statement regarding its continuing investigation of the Northwest Airlines flight that overflew its destination last week after being out of radio contact with air traffic control for a period of time. The incident occurred on October 21, 2009. Northwest Airlines Flight 188, an Airbus A320, eventually resumed radio contact, turned around and landed safely -- albeit late -- at Minneapolis, its intended destination. The incident has garnered enormous media attention, so today's factual update from the NTSB is welcome.
Here is the actual text of today's NTSB advisory about Northwest Flight 188:
In its continuing investigation of an Airbus A320 that overflew the Minneapolis-St Paul International/Wold-Chamberlain Airport (MSP), the National Transportation Safety Board has developed the following factual information:So, no sleeping, napping or nodding off; no claim of fatigue; no 'heated discussion' or argument -- just two well-rested, very experienced pilots losing situational awareness for an extended period of time because of crew scheduling issues? (Makes you wonder: Just how complex is that bidding system, anyway?)
On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, at 5:56 pm mountain daylight time, an Airbus A320, 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 144 passengers, 2 pilots and 3 flight attendants.
Both pilots were interviewed separately by NTSB investigators yesterday in Minnesota. The following is an overview of the interviews:
The Safety Board is interviewing the flight attendants and other company personnel today. Air traffic control communications have been obtained and are being analyzed.
- The first officer and the captain were interviewed for over 5 hours combined.
- The Captain, 53 years old, was hired in 1985. His total flight time is about 20,000 hours, about 10,000 hours of A-320 time of which about 7,000 was as pilot in command.
- The First Officer, 54 years old, was hired in 1997. His total flight time is about 11,000 hours, and has about 5,000 hours on the A-320.
- Both pilots said they had never had an accident, incident or violation.
- Neither pilot reported any ongoing medical conditions.
- Both pilots stated that they were not fatigued. They were both commuters, but they had a 19-hour layover in San Diego just prior to the incident flight. Both said they did not fall asleep or doze during the flight.
- Both said there was no heated argument.
- Both stated there was a distraction in the cockpit. The pilots said there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from ATC even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio. Also, neither pilot noticed
messages that were sent by company dispatchers. They were discussing the new monthly crew flight scheduling system that was now in place as a result of the merger. The discussion began at cruise altitude.
- Both said they lost track of time.
- Each pilot accessed and used his personal laptop computer while they discussed the airline crew flight scheduling procedure. The first officer, who was more familiar with the procedure was providing instruction to the captain. The use of personal computers on the flight deck is prohibited by company policy.
- Neither pilot was aware of the airplane's position until a flight attendant called about 5 minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival (ETA). The captain said, at that point, he looked at his primary flight display for an ETA and realized that they had passed MSP. They made contact with ATC and were given vectors back to MSP.
- At cruise altitude - the pilots stated they were using cockpit speakers to listen to radio communications, not their headsets.
- When asked by ATC what the problem was, they replied "just cockpit distraction" and "dealing with company issues".
- Both pilots said there are no procedures for the flight attendants to check on the pilots during flight.
Preliminary data from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) revealed the following:
The FDR captured the entire flight which contained several hundred aircraft parameters including the portion of flight where there was no radio communication from the flight crew. Investigators are examining the recorded parameters to see if any information regarding crew activity during the portion of flight where radio contact was lost can be obtained.
- The CVR recording was 1/2 hour in length.
- The cockpit area microphone channel was not working during this recording. However, the crew's headset microphones recorded their conversations.
- The CVR recording began during final approach, and continued while the aircraft was at the gate.
- During the hours immediately following the incident flight, routine aircraft maintenance provided power to the CVR for a few minutes on several occasions, likely recording over several minutes of the flight.
The Safety Board's investigation continues.
This story just gets 'curioser and curioser' and leaves so many questions still unanswered. How did they miss the handoff from Denver Center to Minneapolis Center? How could they not have noticed any ACARS messages or SELCAL communications? And so on...
In any case, that's all of the official information for now, folks! Stay tuned for future developments.
UPDATE: Delta Air Lines (which now owns Northwest Airlines) made a public statement about the incident, saying that the two pilots "remain suspended until the conclusion of the investigations into this incident." Then came this elaboration:
Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots' command of the aircraft during flight is strictly against the airline's flight deck policies and violations of that policy will result in termination.Probable translation: "Those two pilots are SO fired..."