A Hail Mary

The pilots of the Northwest flight that weren’t paying attention and overflew their destination on October 21st are now claiming that the air traffic controllers are ultimately at fault for the incident because they:

“…did not comply with the requirements of the air traffic control manual and other relevant orders, rules, procedures, policies and practices with respect to Northwest Flight 188, nor coordinate effectively with Northwest dispatch, and such failure was a causal or contributing factor in the incident”

This claim was made in an appeal to the FAA, who revoked their licenses (pilot certificates) as a result of the incident.

The pilots are clearly grasping at straws in this appeal and who can blame them?  Without flight certificates odds are that their employer (actually Delta Airlines who has merged with Northwest Airlines) will end up terminating their employment.  After all, why would Delta have pilots on the payroll who can’t legally fly airplanes?

But there are two problems with their claim.

First of all, it’s not true.  Other than the fact that the air traffic facilities failed to notify the military of the wayward flight as noted in this entry the air traffic procedures for attempting to regain radio contact with NORDO aircraft were followed (and then some).  Here are the transcripts and audio of controllers’ numerous attempts to talk to the flight.

The facilities contacted Northwest dispatch who in turn tried several times to contact the flight via their digital datalink system (ACARS) and still failed to get a response from the crew.

I suppose it could be argued that the failure of the air traffic controllers to ensure that the flight received the proper frequency change was a failure of procedure, but pilots are required to be in contact with air traffic control too, so that’s a two-way street.

If the crew hadn’t talked to or otherwise received a clearance from air traffic in a reasonable period of time they should have suspected something was wrong and have made an attempt to ensure they were in contact with air traffic controllers.  (This crew went over an hour without having any direct radio communication with air traffic controllers.)

Pilots flying airliners over the continental U.S.  should, at the very least, expect frequency changes every 15 minutes or so.

The other problem with the pilots’ tact is that accusing the FAA of not doing their job or following procedure (even if it were true) isn’t going to result in anything more than the FAA defending themselves.  I know this from personal experience as an FAA employee.

Point out to the FAA that they’re not doing something properly and odds are they’ll either ignore the problem or find some way to defend what they’re doing, even when they’re wrong.  The FAA as an organization isn’t good at admitting when they’re wrong.

So although I can’t blame them for trying, all in all this I can’t believe this approach will result in a re-issuance of the pilots’ flight certificates.  But it does look pretty desperate.

And it certainly doesn’t say much for them accepting any real responsibility for the situation.

It looks as though the first officer is trying to blame the captain for the snafu,  and the captain is also blaming the first officer, so they’ve got fingers pointing all around.

But isn’t the responsibility of being the pilots of an airliner full of passengers really what they’re paid for?  Do they really not feel responsible for what happened on this flight or are they just desperately trying to keep their jobs?


  1. I still think they were both sleeping and that they’d be in a better position today by simply admitting that. Rather than stupidly point fingers at those who actually did their jobs when they failed to do theirs, they could discuss the environment they work in and the problems it poses to being attentive for long periods of time when there is little to occupy their attention.

  2. Saying they were sleeping would probably have been a better tactic for sure, but it wouldn’t have necessarily saved their jobs unless they could have established that there were legitimate contributing factors, like finding that they had a medical problem such as sleep apnea.

    Otherwise sleeping would still fall under the category of dereliction of duty or something like that.

    The Go! pilot who missed landing at Hilo attributed his nap to sleep apnea. It appears that the co-pilot didn’t establish the same…

    What do you think would happen to you if as a controller you fell asleep for an hour and didn’t respond to any aircraft or otherwise perform any air traffic duties?

    Sleeping on duty is a fireable offense for air traffic controllers and I think even determining after-the-fact that you had a medical condition that contributed to that might not save your job.

    You are responsible for reporting to work in a condition to be able to do your job as well as advising the Flight Surgeon of any medical condition that could impact your ability to do your job (as are pilots).

    But I don’t think anyone is too concerned about the root causes of this incident, especially since this sort of thing doesn’t happen often. Since the crew didn’t admit they were sleeping it’s going to be written off to inattentiveness.

    There are undoubtedly some elements of the human/machine interface on the Airbus 320 that are poorly designed (like the ACARS without an audible message waiting chime/alert) but no one is going to mandate and/or pay for changes to those systems.

    This incident will have an FAA-like fix (ie, “don’t do that”).

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