Pilots Who Missed Minnesota Were Too Engrossed In Laptops To Land The Plane

There is a reason that I am not a pilot and the reason is this: I am afraid I would get bored, start messing around with my laptop and miss Minnesota. Unfortunately for Northwest Airlines, they don’t hire people who utilize my rigorous program of self-doubt.

The Wall Street Journal says the pilots of Northwest Flight 188 “told investigators that they were poring over their personal laptops in the cockpit while frantic air-traffic controllers were trying to establish contact.”

The in-flight distractions also included bathroom breaks (understandable) and some chit chatting with a flight attendant.

The WSJ says:

The missteps began when a female flight attendant brought meals into the cockpit and the captain ducked out for a bathroom break, according to people familiar with the details

The flight attendant stayed inside the cockpit for a brief chat, just as controllers were instructing the crew to switch to another radio frequency. The co-pilot, engaged in conversation with her, missed the instruction, and the captain didn’t return until later, according to consultant Greg Feith, a former safety board investigator.

As the plane crossed state lines, neither pilot realized the jet no longer was on the correct radio frequency and that controllers were growing worried about their failure to stay in contact.

As they flew past Minnesota, the crew started a heated discussion about a new scheduling system.

Both pilots retrieved their laptops, and the first officer demonstrated to the captain how the new scheduling system worked.

During what the safety board described as a “concentrated period of discussion,” neither pilot monitored the progress of the airplane nor air-traffic control communications. The pilots failed to notice when Northwest dispatchers sent repeated messages that popped up on the cockpit display screens.

Eventually a flight attendant asked them if they should prepare for landing and they realized they’d blown past Minnesota. That must have been one hell of an interesting scheduling system.

Laptops Cited For Pilot Inattention [WSJ]
(Photo:So Cal Metro)

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  1. Oranges w/ Cheese says:

    This clarifies it a little bit that they requested a frequency change. I was wondering how in the heck they could ignore radio communications for 150 miles, but if there were none then I can sort of understand.

    What I don’t get is that the pilots thought they could *lie* about it. Cockpit voice recorder helooo?

  2. dwasifar says:

    I’m just waiting for this to turn into a ban on passenger laptops in the cabin.

    • Traveshamockery says:

      @dwasifar: That’s a pretty cynical outlook.

    • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

      @dwasifar: Yes, because the pilots are going to come into the passenger cabin and TAKE SOMEONE’S LAPTOP.

      • dwasifar says:

        @Oranges w/ Cheese wants it to be winter already: What, you think they won’t do it just because it doesn’t make any sense? Have you looked at some of the other things they do, like, say, barring coach passengers from using the forward lavatory? Airline policies are in a constant state of wild overreaction. I don’t really think they will ban passenger laptops, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.

        • floraposte says:

          @dwasifar: They’ve barred coach passengers from using higher-class lavatories for ages.

          • dwasifar says:

            @floraposte: Yes, they have always tried to keep coach passengers in the back lavs, but since shortly after 9/11 they always claim it’s due to TSA or FAA regulations (depending on which lie the particular airline chooses to promulgate).

            The real reason, of course, is to keep the rabble out of first class. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to someone in Row 4 that he has to go all the way to the back of the plane when there is a perfectly good bathroom only 15 feet in front of him. So the airline lies and says it’s the law, the same way they lie about weather and flight delays and what the flight attendants can tell you to do, which is basically anything they want as long as they say it’s for security.

        • jparadise says:

          @dwasifar: Erm, the First Class lav has always been for First Class. Not for c@talonscar:

          The problem REALLY is the post-911 policy of LOCKING THE PILOTS IN THE COCKPIT. The flight attendants do not have access to them, aside from walkie-talkie or whatever. If they were allowed in, the pilots probably would have wanted to at least look like they were working in case of the attendants decided to check in and see if they wanted a cup of coffee.

    • doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

      @dwasifar: Certainly, because I know when I’m a passenger I am responsible for flying the plane.
      Was the plane above 10,000 feet? You know if you use unauthorized electrical devices below 10,000 feet the plane will explode, right?

  3. Razor512 says:

    Shouldn’t the planes have a GPS, cant they give text to speech for the GPS that will say something like you have reached your destination, it is time to land the plane.

    This way even if there not focusing, they will hear the warning and get back to work.

  4. Traveshamockery says:

    Another reason for no free wi-fi on planes!

  5. Xay says:

    So talking on your cell phone and texting while driving is bad, but both pilots being on their personal laptops is ok?

    • veronykah says:

      @xay: Contrary to popular belief the pilots are not in full on Top Gun mode for an entire flight. Autopilot actually flies the plane the majority of the time. I don’t think you can compare it to driving a car at all.

  6. GitEmSteveDave_FullOfEvilClowns says:

    So wait, we can’t start up our laptops because they may interfere with the instruments, but the people closest to the actual instruments themselves can? Uhhhhhhhhh.

    • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

      @GitEmSteveDave_FullOfEvilClowns: Mythbusters proved pretty much beyond a shadow of a doubt that a cell phone does jack to avionics. Having been on numerous planes recently where people just tuck their phones away and don’t turn them off, I would tend to agree.

      Though of course, my experience does not negate whatever real evidence (if any) there is out there, and tbh I haven’t looked.

      • Esquire99 says:

        @Oranges w/ Cheese wants it to be winter already:
        I haven’t seen that Mythbusters, but I can tell you from personal experience that some cellphones produce at least mild radio interference.

        Back when I used to flight instruct, I had a student who was a contractor. He carried a Sprint/Nextel phone with the two-way capability. Anytime anyone tried to get in touch with him, it would make the radios in the plane buzz. Not really a huge deal, but enough to be annoying and could be problematic if we were on a busy frequency and couldn’t hear a call because of the interference.

        • PølάrβǽЯ says:

          @Esquire99: All GSM phones cause amplifiers to buzz when in close proximity (we’re talking <3 feet here). It certainly doesn’t hurt anything, however. And there’s no way a GSM phone in the passenger area would make an amplifier in the cockpit buzz.

    • Clerkerist says:

      @GitEmSteveDave_Right: 1 Wrong: ∞: That’s only during takeoff and landing. These pilots were only trying to keep the passengers safe by not landing the plane while they were using their laptops. When they were done, they merely turned the plane around and landed without incident. What’s all the hub-bub?

  7. DirectMailFan says:

    Or, maybe these guys should have been eating brownies, and, um, maybe pizza:

    Hold the mayo? Not when it comes to astute pilots

    GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Running a marathon, grab a carbohydrate bar. Lifting weights, gulp a protein shake. But climbing into a fighter jet? Butter-soaked lobster might help.

    That was the surprising finding of a new military-funded study that sought to figure out what types of foods were best for pilots when missions restricted when or what they could eat. University of North Dakota researchers found that pilots who ate the fattiest foods such as butter or gravy had the quickest response times in mental tests and made fewer mistakes when flying in tricky cloud conditions.

    Full story here: [www.ajc.com]

  8. Bitter_Old_Punk says:

    I think they were leveling up in World Of Warcraft.

  9. floraposte says:

    Urgleglurk pretty much called it–they were indeed talking about the effect of the NWA/Delta merger, though on scheduling rather than senority: [www.nytimes.com]

  10. Jackson6 says:

    The flight data recorder erases over itself and it only saves the final 30 minutes. I bet they just kept flying in silence to erase what happened when the flight attendant entered the cockpit.

  11. GitEmSteveDave_FullOfEvilClowns says:

    I’m just picturing what they were REALLLLLLY talking about that they had to “overshoot” and clear out the audio recording.

    Clarence Oveur: Do you want to see the cool new logo for the plane I designed? It’s drawn in vector.
    Victor: Huh?
    Roger Murdock:: And did you see my new bag? I didn’t think my lappy would fit in, but it has just enough clearance.
    Clarence Oveur: Wha?

    Any other ideas?

  12. Oranges w/ Cheese says:

    @treimel: There was controversy and the pilots weren’t coming clean. People were speculating they were asleep at the wheel.

  13. Im Just Saying says:

    After the Colgan Air tragedy earlier this year, people came out of the woodwork screaming about FAA regulations about excessive and extraneous chatter during flight. I’m curious because I haven’t seen a single similar statement about this incident, just jokes about pr0n and WOW.

    • floraposte says:

      @CracktheCrown: Cruise and ascent/descent have different rules; the Colgan crew violated the no-extraneous-chatter rules during descent (supposed to have a “sterile cockpit”). Extraneous chatter wouldn’t have been a violation in itself for the Northwest pilots.

      I also think people react differently to a situation wherein people actually died.

  14. Oranges w/ Cheese says:

    @Caged Wisdom: Oh, I see. And since they were still in flight it only got the last 30 minutes. Well I think this little escapade is going to get most of those replaced ASAP.

  15. Hank Scorpio says:

    First, the phrase “my rigorous program of self-doubt” is the best thing I’ve read all day.

    Second, “new scheduling system” must be code for “porn”.

  16. theworldisinsane says:

    I need to call hogwash on this laptop excuse. While it’s completely reprehensible on its own, aren’t there reports that contact was attempted not only via ATC but also via company phone and from other aircraft in the vicinity? Not only that, but the autopilot (while not exactly having a “you have arrived at your destination” chime), would have had an indication that they had reached their T/D (top of descent) point in their flight plan. There are simply too many alerts and too much time that passed for me to believe they were just chatting about company policy over their computers.

  17. Scarficus Rex says:

    How does a change radio frequency instruction work? I guess I’d expect some sort of acknowledgment from the flight that they received and executed the change frequency instruction before assuming that they were on the new frequency.

    • Esquire99 says:

      @Wuhao:
      Controller says “Flight xxxxx, change to Minneapolis Center, 128.25″
      crew should respond, “Roger, Flight xxxx over to Minneapolis at 128.25″

      if no response, the controller shouldn’t assume they changed.

    • Areia says:

      @Wuhao: Also, if you told someone to change frequencies, and after you did they stopped responding to you, wouldn’t you go back and check if they were still on the old one?

      • Esquire99 says:

        @Areia:
        The frequency change is usually to a different controller. If there is no response when the change instruction is given, it’s not uncommon for the controller issuing it to contact the would-be new controller and see if they got in touch. It’s possible the plane was in range for reception but out of range for transmission back to the controller. If the “new” controller says he hasn’t heard from them, they go into the mode they did here: keep trying them, ask other planes to try, etc.

        • Hoss says:

          @Esquire99: We can listen to Howard Stern (satelite radio) for hundreds of miles in a Toyota but a Boeing needs to be in range of a tower?

          • Esquire99 says:

            @Hoss:
            Not a “tower” but a Air Route Traffic Control Center. All radio communications with aircraft are still ground-station based.

    • floraposte says:

      @Wuhao: The actual pilots here will know more, but my understanding is that they usually do acknowledge a handoff, and their missing the acknowledgment was one of the first things to raise a red flag.

  18. Nick says:

    I just can’t buy this story. Pilots know what they’re doing, they know how long flights last, they would have flown over radio markers that would signal them, they would have noticed a lack of radio communication if they were on the wrong frequency.

    I feel like, unless someone can prove otherwise, I will always assume the pilots were asleep. (e.g., did the flight DATA recorder show that the pilots made any adjustments or touched the controls whatsoever during their “blackout”?)

    • Esquire99 says:

      @schwnj:
      You’d be surprised how easy it is to “space out” when you’re flying. A normal, long flight is pretty monotonous. Further, there aren’t really “radio markers” as you imagine them to alert you. As far as navigation, you do have to pay attention to it, there aren’t really warning bells that go off if you miss something. Further, one article said they continued to hear radio chatter but didn’t hear anything for them. You can go a LONG time on a frequency and hear nothing for you from the controller. I’ve been on flights where I checked in on freq., was acknowledged, and didn’t hear from the controller (for me, at least) until he told me to switch to the next freq.

      • mythago says:

        @Esquire99: Yeah, but c’mon. For an hour? And then their stories changed?

        I admit I thought they were probably watching porn rather than sleeping.

      • jaket says:

        @Esquire99: But you’d think that hearing “Northwest 188, this is Minneapolis Center on Guard” would be unusual enough to get their attention. Especially when the controller is repeating this non-routine message several times. And the SELCAL chimes are also going off. Oh, and center is also asking other aircraft to relay a call to Northwest 188. Even if you’re not “Northwest 188″, your hair kind of starts standing on end when you hear that kind of radio traffic. If you ARE “Northwest 188″, it’s impossible to miss. If you’re conscious.

        None of this makes any sense if the pilots weren’t asleep. Or doing something so unimaginably irresponsible that their story about being engrossed in their laptops seems downright innocent by comparaison.

    • Trai_Dep says:

      @schwnj: The orbiting Exit Signs would have worked, but those damn kids went up and tagged the Hell out of ‘em.

  19. talonscar says:

    That story sounds a LOT better than:

    “I stepped out of the cabin for 45 minutes while the co-pilot railed the flight attendant. No one was paying attention to piloting the plane.”

  20. colorisnteverything says:

    And yeah, I have to fly NWA later because they are one of the only companies that will fly me to my European destination for under $1500.00

  21. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    Slate’s Explainer has a good piece on how the pilots could have possibly missed over an hour of radio calls: [www.slate.com]

  22. Gracegottcha says:

    I’m sorry, I think we have the right to expect the pilot(s) to pay attention to flying the damned plane! That IS their job. That IS what they are paid for.

    • mianne prays her parents outlive the TSA says:

      @Gracegottcha: Just as we expect food handlers, assembly workers, security guards, and babysitters to pay attention to their jobs — all of whom make a lot less than pilots. Yet their inattention could also make things uncomfortable or deadly.

      Is there any job out there where one isn’t expected to “pay attention”?

      • duffman13 says:

        @mianne: Actually unless you are a plane captain on major routes you really don’t make that much. You start around $20k flying regionals and may be up to $50k after 5-7 years. When you move up to national level copilot you drop back down to $35k and can work your way up to about $80k. You only make the 6-figure money when you’re flying the long international routes. Pilots are paid significantly less than they were 20 years ago.

  23. oldwiz says:

    The pilots and airline are lucky the National Security People didn’t think the plane was hijacked; then they might have gotten a noisy wake up from a couple of highly aggressive military pilots. I’m sure the sound of 20mm cannon blasting past them would have got their attention.

    • GitEmSteveDave_Right: 1 Wrong: ∞ says:

      @oldwiz: We do warning shots on civilian aircraft now? Some pilots shot an empty school in NJ, and there was hell to pay.

  24. Trai_Dep says:

    Yet another reason why pilots shouldn’t play WoW or Team Fortress when flying.

  25. MikeL says:

    Work schedulling software. Sure.

  26. senorTron says:

    I was once on a flight from Denver to Chicago and the pilot began to attempt a landing at O’Hare (i sure hope that’s what he was doing . . . i could see people on the ground we were so low) and then must have put the laptop down and realized our flight was supposed to land at Midway. He hit the thrust and went back up and circled around and we landed at Midway without incident. Freaked me out.

  27. jpdanzig says:

    Perhaps this is kind of attention to the task at hand we can expect when airlines pay their pilots just $20,000 a year. Yikes…

  28. 2 replies says:

    They actually got their licenses revoked.
    [www.npr.org]

    • Esquire99 says:

      @2 replies by:
      I saw that. I must say I feel like it’s a little severe, and I’m not sure that it will be upheld if/when the pilots appeal. For a careless/reckless charge, which is part of what their licenses were revoked for, the FAA must show that there was actual danger caused by the pilot’s actions. I’m not sure they can prove that here.

  29. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    Anyone who’s piloting a plane, driving a train, bus, tractor trailer, cruise ship…whatever….NO computers, blackberries, iPhones, Wiis, Etch-a-sketchs, TV’s, or porn magazines in the cabin/cab. You’re being paid to get people/cargo from point A to point B without killing anyone. Pay attention to your damned job.

  30. TechnoDestructo says:

    I guess there could be reasons to have a laptop in the cockpit…but if they’d only had one laptop out, at least one guy would be disengaged enough to notice the time.

  31. frodolives35 says:

    They are lucky they did not run out of fuel. I thought fuel weight was calculated on a leg by leg basis.