My take on the Northwest 188 incident

I'll say up front that I in no way take what happened aboard Northwest 188 lightly. The pilots made a very serious mistake that can't be explained away. At the same time, they made a mistake. People make mistakes. They have admitted their mistake and, as far as I know, have been totally truthful in telling the authorities what happened. So while the media, and just about everyone else, is out to crucify these guys, I see it as an opportunity to learn from what happened and possibly make some changes that might help prevent a similar thing from happening again.

Now the traveling public may find this hard to believe, but overflying a fix where an action is required and that action not taking place is not that uncommon of an occurrence. A good example is overflying a top of descent point and not beginning a descent or requesting a descent. Let's say that you're a couple of miles away from the top of descent and just as you're about to ask for lower you get a call from the flight attendant. So you get involved in dealing with whatever issue the flight attendant has and pass right over the TOD. It happens. The difference might be that the other pilot catches it and brings it to the flying pilot's attention. Maybe the controller sees that the crew hasn't asked for lower and assigns them a lower altitude. In either case the error chain has been broken.

The reason flying is so safe is because there is redundancy and safeguards that are in place to catch errors as they happen before they can cascade into more serious problems. The perfect flight is a goal seldom achieved. For the Northwest crew to make the mistake they made there had to be a series of errors that went unchecked. First there is the loss of communications. It happens all the time. A missed hand-off. A distraction. It's night time. There isn't a lot of chatter going on. After a while the crew realizes that they haven't heard anything so they get on the radio and try to reestablish contact. Sometimes a controller might enlist the aid of another aircraft to try and reach the out-of-contact plane. Sometimes the controller might have another plane contact their company dispatch and have an ACARS message sent directly to the plane. This usually solves the problem. From what I've read, all of this took place but the Northwest crew still didn't realize that they were out of radio contact for an extended period of time.

The crew says that they were using their laptops and were discussing a new crew scheduling system and simply lost track of time and failed to monitor the progress of the flight. That is a hard thing for any pilot to admit to. But it sounds sincere to me. It's what happened. Because they had their laptops in front of them they missed the numerous messages flashing on their flight displays. Should they have been checking those displays? Obviously.

More than likely the crew must have been cleared directly to a fix, either an arrival fix or perhaps even the airport itself. So there would have been very little turning going on, which might have refocused their attention. There wasn't any weather to contend with, so that was another opportunity they would have had to avert their mistake. There may be more information to come out of the investigation that may shed even more light on this incident. So I won't speculate any further than I already have. But there are a number of issues that I plan to comment on as this incident progresses: the role automation may have played; the role of the media in how they routinely get things wrong; the problems associated with long times in cruise flight with automated aircraft; the arguments for and against airline policies that prohibit the use of personal laptops in the cockpit. That last one deserves a quick final comment.

The Airbus operating manual or FCOM is provided in digital form. I don't know for positive that Northwest has laptops on board with the FCOM installed. But I do know that many airlines do. So if a crew is permitted to open a laptop in a noncritical phase of flight to review something in the manual, how is that more safe than a pilot looking at a new crew scheduling system on his personal laptop?

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