Aviators' Thoughts

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My Thoughts On the Northwest Airlines Incident

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Ive been asked several times, in the last couple of days, what I thought about the NWA incident where the pilots overflew the airport by 150 miles. Much has already been said about this issue and I think there are still more facts that need to come out before a final determination can be made. I will not cast judgement on two experienced pilots until the FAA or NTSB makes a full report on the incident and we all must remember that this crew has families and children that look up to and depend on these men. It is easy to crucify them when you dont have all the facts, but some things about this incident still give me pause…..

First of all, I have a BIG problem with the use of laptops in the cockpit. Personally anything that distracts from the monitoring of the flight instruments is a safety hazard. With the incredible amount of automation these days, long-haul flights can get rather boring. Even so, when one pilot is engaged in other activity, say paperwork, eating or having to go to the bathroom there should ALWAYS be a positive transfer of the controls. Machines are not perfect and monitoring the instruments is one of those safety checks which is CRITICAL. One of the main reasons there are two pilots in the front of large-cabin aircraft and not just one, is that one pilot monitors the other and the instruments as a “check and balance” Any experienced pilot should recognize that when both airmen are invloved in a distracting activity that safety is being compromised. I find it hard to believe that BOTH pilots were on laptops without one of these VERY experienced men not realizing that someone should be looking at the instruments. Apparently there is no specific FAR against laptops in the cockpit, but apparently it was a violation of NorthWests’ standard operating procedures. As a side note, when I was flying fractional, we were allowed NOTHING in the cockpit as a distraction. That ment no magazines, newspapers, NOTHING. You could read the Standard Operating Procedures and General Operations Manuals on the EFB or the paper Aircraft Flight Manual, but even then, we had a best practice of announcing the transfer of positive control and monitoring of the aircraft. It was by far the safest thing to do.

I also have an issue with the pilots being out of radio contact for what is reported to be anywhere from 60 to as much as 91 minutes. Though I am not an expert on the Airbus, I do know that there are at least two radios in the airplane, an ACARS (datalink) system and a UHF radio (for over water flights) and possibly a satellite phone. How is it even conceivable that neither pilot noticed radio silence for this long? At the very least, one of the pilots should have executed a “radio check” if they didnt hear anything for a while. I used to do the radio check quite often when the frequency would go quiet. Occasionally ATC would forget to hand us off to another frequency and it was quickly corrected. In this case, the pilots flew 100s OF MILES talking to no one apparently. Somehow they either ignored or never heard multiple radio calls from ATC, datalink messages from dispatch and werent even monitoring the guard (emergency) frequency. They didnt respond until a flight attendant called them on the Interphone.

In addition to these improbable scenarios, the Airbus is a highly technical aircraft with glass panel displays. These displays known as the Primary and Multi-Function flight displays, have an overwhelming amount of information available to the pilot. One of these includes the route of the flight with waypoints prominently displayed on the center MFD (Multi-Function Display). It easily shows the aircraft position relative to the destination. The Airbus also has at least two FMS (Flight Management System) computers between the pilots that also show the route of flight and alerts the pilot via a blinking caution light if something should be amiss on the route. These cautions will often also show up on the Primary or Multi-Function displays easily visible to the pilot. I find it hard to believe that both pilots were so engrossed in their schedules that NEITHER ONE noticed any kind of caution or warning flags on their instruments or noticed on the FMS that they were either close or passing MSP (Minneapolis).

Lastly I have issue withe the changing “stories’. Several explanations from the pilots have been reported in the press. I dont know the validity of each story, but apparently it has changed from “heated conversation” to “laptops” in quick order. It makes you wonder what the real truth is. Many have speculated that the pilots were in fact asleep. While this is plausible scenario, there may be no way of knowing if it was true or not. Only the two pilots sitting in that airplane really know the truth. Both should have come forward immediately with the real story right after this incident happened. The consequences of the emergency revocation of their licenses MAY not have happened if they had come forward and fessed up as soon as this incident happened.

I think every pilot can learn from this incident. The technology that is afforded to us these days is incredible, but we must all take care to know that WE, the human element, are still responsible for the lives and safety of the people we fly. There will be more automation in the future, but each pilot must remain vigilant that we DO NOT become distracted by all this technology. I am happy that there was no damage to the aircraft and no injuries to the passengers but in a different scenario the outcome could have been MUCH different.

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Written by tdwnds1

October 28, 2009 at 2:51 pm

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