Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Northwest pilots who overflew destination settle with the FAA over license revocation

by B. N. Sullivan

laptopThe two Northwest Airlines A320 pilots who famously overflew their intended destination this past October have settled with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding the agency's revocation of the pilots' licenses. In short, the pilots have dropped their appeal of the revocation. They will be permitted to re-apply for their licenses near the end of August, 2010.

For the benefit of readers who may have been living on a remote desert island for the past five months and who are thus unaware of the details of this drama, here is a synopsis of the story.

On October 21, 2009 Northwest Airlines Flight 188 was en route from San Diego to Minneapolis when radio contact with the aircraft, an Airbus A320, was lost. The aircraft, which was at cruise altitude, was a NORDO (no radio communications) for well over an hour, during which time it overflew its intended destination by more than 100 miles.

At some point, a flight attendant on board contacted the flight deck on an intercom regarding arrival time. According to an early National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report about the incident, neither pilot was aware of the aircraft's position at that time. When the flight attendant called, the pilots looked at their primary flight display and realized that they had passed Minneapolis, and were flying over Wisconsin. The pilots then made contact with Air Traffic Control and were vectored back to Minneapolis where they made a safe, albeit late, landing.

Despite early speculation that the pilots may have been napping, they told the NTSB that they had "lost situational awareness" because they were discussing a new crew scheduling system, and were going over the details on their personal laptop computers. They both said they "lost track of time." Shortly after that admission, the FAA summarily revoked both pilots' licenses. In December of 2009, the pilots announced that they would appeal the revocation, denying that they had "intentionally or willfully" violated any federal aviation regulations.

Yesterday the settlement between the pilots and the FAA was announced. The pilots' suspension by Delta Air Lines (which now owns Northwest Airlines) remains in force while the airline continues its own internal investigation of the incident.

Opinions about this incident among those in the aviation community have run the gamut. Many believe the pilots were unfairly vilified, saying that if the news media had not got hold of the story and sensationalized it, these pilots would have received a slap on the wrist and would still be flying -- especially since no one was hurt or killed, and no airplanes were damaged. At the other end of the spectrum are the less forgiving who believe that this was a serious and irresponsible violation, and that the pilots should never fly again.

Regardless, this slip-up by a pair of high-time, accomplished pilots due to distraction and inattention has cost them a lot -- financially and otherwise. Whether they are able to resume their airline piloting careers or not, the incident has changed their lives forever. If nothing else, it is a cautionary tale.

For the record, here are all of the articles I wrote about this incident here on Aircrew Buzz as events unfolded over time:UPDATE Mar. 18, 2010: Today the NTSB released its probable cause findings for the Northwest Flight 188 incident, along with corresponding safety recommendations arising from the investigation. Linkage: