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What Happened To Flight 188?

Posted by Jane Akre
Friday, October 23, 2009 5:12 PM EST
Category: On The Road
Tags: Pilot Fatigue, FAA, NTSB, Northwest Airlines, Delta

Northwest Flight 188 lost communication with the ground for 78 minutes. No one knows why.



IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons/ NWA A 320 upon takeoff, 2007/ author: Dylan Ashe

The Missing 78 Minutes

We may never know what happened to Northwest Flight 188 because its outdated cockpit-voice recorder only has 30-minutes of memory.

What we do know is that the flight overshot its destination by 150 miles during which time air traffic controllers frantically tried to reach the crew.

The Airbus A320 departed from San Diego Wednesday evening on its way to Minneapolis.

Along the way was a 78-minute gap of silence during which time air-traffic controllers say they made repeated attempts to contact the crew.

They got no answer for 1 hour and 18 minutes.

Controllers became so concerned about the fate of the 140 people onboard Flight 188 that they asked pilots of aircraft in the area to see if they could get a response from the Northwest crew.

Authorities checked to see if there were any air marshals onboard.

Fearing the worst, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) even considered engaging fighter jets to intercept the twin-jet Airbus A320.

When the crew did resume communication with controllers the plane had to circle back, flying for about 50 minutes, until they landed safely in Minneapolis. There were no injuries reported.

So what happened?

The cockpit recorder may not tell the answer.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that it’s likely only the tail end of the communication, after contact with air traffic controllers was re-established, would be recorded. That’s because the outdated cockpit recorder erases old conversations by recording over them in a 30-minute loop.

The leading theory by safety experts and investigators is that both pilots had the plane in autopilot cruising at 37,000 feet and fell asleep.

But both pilots have repeatedly insisted they were engaged in a heated discussion about company matters and just lost track of their location.

What’s perplexing is that conversations with the ground usually increases as a plane approaches its destination.

There are reportedly no bells or whistles to alert pilots they have passed their last flight market. But there would have been a message on the screen between the pilots that says “flight plan discontinuity.”

Northwest Airlines, now a unit of Delta, has suspended the pilots from flying and is investigating. A cooperative investigation is underway by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to find out what happened.

Pilot fatigue has been an issue in the news recently as airlines try to tighten their budgets, and pilots report they have quicker turn-arounds and are asked to work longer hours for less pay.

ABC News is reporting that many pilots have expressed anger over the routes they fly and seniority since the merging of Delta and Northwest.

On Monday, a crew that had flown a Delta Boeing 767 from Brazil landed on a taxiway in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International rather than a parallel runway. The crew had been flying all night.

The NTSB is investigating the role pilot fatigue may have played in that flight.

Airline Industry Resists Rest Time

Last year, the FAA imposed new rules that would require longer rest time and layovers for those commanding a nonstop flight of 16 hours. But that would require the airlines to hire more pilots.

Seven U.S. airlines are fighting new rules, suing the FAA and claiming that they were not consulted on the new rest rules imposed last October.

Pilots responding to one IB News story on pilot fatigue last month suggest adequate and comfortable rest facilities onboard the aircraft might help, as might 12 to 36-hour layovers so the body clock would not be disrupted. #

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