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October 23, 2009

Asleep At the Controls? Feds Investigating Why Northwest Flight Went For A Joy Ride

On the upside, it doesn't appear they were drunk.

Federal officials are working to sort out whether pilots of a Northwest Airlines flight dozed off or were simply distracted Wednesday night when they fell out of contact with air-traffic controllers for more than an hour and overshot their destination by 150 miles.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, among other things, whether the two pilots fell asleep at the controls. The pair told law-enforcement officials who interviewed them upon landing in Minneapolis -- and apparently told fellow pilots later -- that they had been engaged in a "heated discussion over airline policy and they lost situational awareness," according to the NTSB.

Yeah, being out of radio contact for 78 minutes, 150 miles off course and having the military about to launch fighter interceptors to see what's up, is a little more than a loss of situational awareness. The NTSB is trying to figure out if the cockpit voice recorder is the older model that only records 30 minutes at a time or the newer ones that have 2 hours of data. If it's the latter and they hear snoring instead of fighting over company policy...buh bye to these two.

Pilot fatigue is a big issue and no doubt the NTSB and NASA will be looking into the flight crews schedule but there's also the fact that flying today's commercial jets is not the most exciting of things under routine conditions. Aside from take off and landing, a lot of the normal navigation and control functions are handled by computers. Once the crew plugs in the info, baring in-flight changes or emergencies, they are kind of along for the ride too.

I first saw this story last night over at Lex's, where there's lots of comments about sleeping on the job. Here's one of my personal stories that I left over there....

I was coming home from Hawaii on United one time and listening to Channel 9. Somewhere east of LA I heard a controller call up to our flight 2 or 3 times with no response. I was considering how to politely suggest to the FA she might want to, um, visit, the cockpit when the FO finally responded and took the hand-off to the next Center.

The funny thing is I was never affraid to fly before but after getting my private certificate, I know just enough to occasionally be worried.

Flying commercial is still one of the safest ways to travel and when those hours of boredom are punctuated by moments of sheer terror you want a guy like Sully Sullenberger working the problem. Still though, you expect them to at least be awake.

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posted by DrewM. at 02:57 PM

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