Northwest Air Pilot Misses Airport By 150 Miles

If you’re an airplane pilot, it’s important to try and land in the state customers paid you to fly toward.

Northwest Airlines pilots overlooked this technicality Wednesday, when they flew 147 passengers past Minneapolis and failed to realize they’d taken a wrong turn at I-94 and had entered the cheese-infested land Brett Favre abandoned.

ABC’s Scott Mayerowitz writes:

The pilots of the Airbus A320 told the FBI and airport police that they were in a heated discussion over airline policy and they lost awareness of the situation, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The pilots did turn the plane around and land in Minneapolis eventually.

The argument was probably pretty important, and you can’t blame them for missing Minnesota. Blink and it’s gone.

Northwest Airlines Pilots Miss Airport by 150 Miles [ABC News]
(Photo: zonaphoto)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

    Yeah, Minnesota is one of them tiny states ….

  2. Mackinstyle says:

    They just don’t want to admit that they forgot about the coriolis effect ;)

  3. nonpareil says:

    Cockpit shenanigans, no doubt.

  4. Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:


    Holy crap!

    Apparently all planes now need to come with an airhorn in the cockpit that can be remotely activated! That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever read!

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): I read the article in today’s WSJ and what had happened was that they passed through various air traffic control zones and none of them could get through to the pilots. They were actually talking about scrambling jets to fly up to the plane and flag them down. Meanwhile, the air traffic control people in various zones were getting on the horn with other pilots in the area to see whether they could see the plane and get the pilots’ attention.

      • Rachacha says:

        @pecan 3.14159265: What is concerning to me is that they lost communication for an hour before they even considered thinking about scrambling fighter jets. I guess the fact that they were maintaining their last heading, and not changing course for New York, Chicago or Washington made the ATCs believe it was not a terrorist threat.

        Large planes filled with fuel and pilots that are not responding to ATC just don’t mix in my opinion.

        • floraposte says:

          @Rachacha: The reports I’m seeing don’t make it clear when they contacted the military, just that it was after they tried to get nearby commercial pilots to make contact and that failed. I do wonder if there’s any established protocol on this–I think you’re right that it depends what the plane’s doing, and it’s possible that a short-term failure to respond to ATC isn’t hugely uncommon.

          The plane wouldn’t be filled with fuel at this point, though, since it was the end of the flight. In fact, if they’d really screwed up on the non-response, fuel starvation might have become an issue.

    • Hoss says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): The pilot is related to Mark Sanford?

    • Whtthfgg says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): I guarantee it comes out that both pilots were sleeping. Plane didn’t turn around til a flight attendant told them.

    • kexline says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): Yeah, I saw the WSJ headline this morning, and I think the Consumerist blurb seriously missed the point here. Missing by 150 miles is bad, but being incommunicado for NINETY MINUTES is outlandish.

    • GitEmSteveDave_IsStrongInTheSnark says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): Just picture this going on in the cockpit for an hour:

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): Out of curiosity — can someone explain to me what this means?

      “During the 78-minute radio silence, controllers became so concerned about the fate of the 149 people aboard that they asked pilots of other aircraft in the vicinity to see if they could rouse the Northwest crew.” (WSJ article)

      How would they do that?

    • Snaptastic says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): It’s also possible that they turned the volume on the radios down.

      It sounds bad, but we sometimes get pilots here who do that so they can talk to the students they are training. It makes things harder on the controllers since we’re trying to fit them into a line of airplanes and they aren’t listening to a word we say.

    • tbax929 says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!):
      I don’t know all the details, obviously, but the more I read about the airline industry lately the more determined I am to fly as infrequently as possible.

      I swear I just read something about airline pilots making less than $40,000 a year. Some of them make $20,000 and are on state assistance. I don’t know about you, but I want my pilot to be well-paid and happy.

  5. loueloui says:

    Northwest says there will be a 410 fee charged for the extra fuel used to return to the correctt destination

  6. bbagdan says:

    I thought pilots barely flew the planes any more. Wouldn’t alarm buzzers have sounded in the cockpit if they missed their programmed waypoints?

    • Hoss says:

      @bbagdan: You can program that on a boat — would think a big bad airliner would have the same featire

    • Esquire99 says:

      Not necessarily. It depends on what mode the auto pilot was in. If it was tracking a specific heading set by the pilots, it would just keep flying in perpetuity (or until it ran out of gas). And if if it was programmed to follow a GPS or other navigation system, once it reach the final waypoint it *might* beep once or twice and flash a message on the screen, but after that it just continues the same heading it was on until the pilots take some affirmative action.

    • floraposte says:

      @bbagdan: There were cockpit sounds to alert them. They didn’t respond.

    • FLConsumer says:

      @pecan 3.14159265: Sleep would my guess. Scary. Well, the airlines want to pay less & less for staff, so they get to reap the benefits thereof.

  7. MurKam says:

    I flew in and out of the Twin Cities airport for 15 years–rain, snow, sleet, ice, clouds, clear skies–day and night. Considering the size of the metro area and the fact that there is absolutely NOTHING similar for an hour flying time anywhere near Minneapolis-St. Paul–these guys were fast asleep.

  8. Digital_Headache says:

    I understand completely. I know it’s gotta to be tough to stop and ask for directions at 31,000 feet while traveling at 550 MPH.

  9. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    Today’s WSJ article on this gives more information.


    There was initial speculation that the pilots had fallen asleep, or perhaps terrorism was involved.

    The plane kept passing through air traffic control zones and wouldn’t respond to any of the calls that the towers would make to the plane, and the pilots weren’t making any of their regularly scheduled check-in calls to the towers. Usually pilots at least report their current flight status to the towers, just to keep them updated as to their altitude and other stats. According to the WSJ article, the pilots missed at least four of these regular calls to the towers.

    Eventually, the towers involved got on the horn with a bunch of other planes in the area and asked them to try to call the missing plane and the pilots finally responded to one of these calls.

    • pop top says:

      @pecan 3.14159265: The articles say they were in a heated discussion…Was it so heated that they had to turn off their radios and ignore all incoming contact? I find it ridiculous that two pilots find their silly argument more important than a plane full of people.

      • pecan 3.14159265 says:

        @squinko: Well, that’s where the investigation as to whether they were asleep comes into play. It seems to be that the FAA isn’t entirely believing this story. Even people in discussions know protocol. They know they have to make very brief status updates to towers. It’s not rocket science, it’s as easy as calling your significant other to tell them you’ll be late coming home so they don’t worry. It’s something you just automatically do.

        Because this is supposed to be such a basic part of pilot training, I think this is why the FAA is suspicious that perhaps these pilots may not be telling the truth.

      • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

        @squinko: My co-workers and I were just discussing this (we all fly on business fairly frequently). Consensus in the office seems to be that to totally ignore the heading and the radio, the pilots had to be involved in something heated, know what I mean. ;)

    • Esquire99 says:

      @pecan 3.14159265:
      You’re making part of that up.

      First, the article makes no mention of any “Regularly scheduled flight status checks,” in part because those don’t exist. Unless you’re flying IFR in an area with no radar coverage, pilots don’t make status updates as to “altitude and other stats.” ATC has all of that on their Radar screen. I can tell you from personal experience that Minnesota and Wisconsin have full radar coverage. The only places that don’t are lower-altitude areas that are particularly mountainous (Certain areas in CO, etc.) or incredibly sparsely populated (MT). Generally, the only time a pilot “checks in” is when they are told to change frequencies to switch to another ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Center) and that’s merely to let the new controller know they are on frequency.

      And just an FYI, planes en-route are not controlled by “towers.” Towers exist only at airports and only control the traffic in the immediate vicinity of that airport. En-route, planes are handled by ARTCCs, or “Centers.” Centers usually occupy office-type buildings and are frequently nowhere near an airport.

      • floraposte says:

        @Esquire99: My dad lives right near the one in Oberlin, OH. I always feel I should tiptoe past it so as not to break their concentration.

        Here’s a page that lists the US ARTCCs and their locations: []

        • Esquire99 says:

          You should go tour it sometime. It’s a neat operation, but typically a fairly depressing environment. No windows (At least on the “floor”) and it’s usually kept very dark.

      • pecan 3.14159265 says:

        @Esquire99: I misread what I was reading, I didn’t make it up. The air traffic controllers sent many, many messages – at least four – that the pilots should have responded to. Geesh.

        • Esquire99 says:

          @pecan 3.14159265:
          The messages “sent” are not the issue. The issue is that you have asserted that these pilots had an obligation to occasionally provide “Status reports” to ATC. That’s simply not true and is not even alluded to in the article. If the pilots believed they had flown out of range of their last ATC frequency, they have an obligation to attempt to re-establish communication, but they are not required to make any brief updates, as you assert.

          You’re right that the pilots should have responded to ATC’s calls; that’s not in dispute. The problem I have with your post is that it contains information that is simply untrue and is not contained in the WSJ article.

        • floraposte says:

          @pecan 3.14159265: Yeah, basically they failed to respond to the usual handoff and approach messages and then ATC started getting active.

  10. Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

    Sully would never let this happen. Sigh.

  11. Sneeje says:

    Why didn’t they use an F-117 to dock with the belly of the airplane to let someone on board to check on the crew?

  12. GitEmSteveDave_IsStrongInTheSnark says:

    OK, my theory is they DID sleep through the stop, and then continued on, so they could make sure they erased the 30min continuous tape in the black boxes, and know they wouldn’t be heard/instruments read.

    But didn’t anyone notice the lack of inane banter telling you to look to the left and right and no one telling them they couldn’t use the bathroom?

  13. diasdiem says:

    I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.

  14. MalcoveMagnesia says:

    I especially like how Delta (the new owners & masters of the rapidly disappearing Northwest brand) is almost never mentioned in any of the news stories…

  15. nnj says:

    A320 fly by wire technology means that the pilot makes a control input to do one thing, and the airplane decides to do something else.

    • NeverLetMeDown says:


      No, it really doesn’t, and nobody is claiming that anything vaguely similar occured. Had there been some sort of equipment failure, don’t you think the pilots would have mentioned that, rather than putting the blame on themselves?

      • Esquire99 says:

        He’s actually correct, to some extent, about Airbus airplanes. Many (all?) of them use fly-by-wire technology. If the pilot makes a control input that would put the airplane outside certain limits, the computer ignores part or all of that input. While it’s not relevant to the topic at hand, he’s not wrong that the airplane has that technology/limitation.

        • NeverLetMeDown says:


          He’s correct to a very limited extent. If you try to put the plane into a “tear off the wings” maneuver, it won’t let you. If you try to land in Minneapolis, it’s not going to say “no, let’s go on to Wisconsin.”

          • Esquire99 says:

            Agreed. I should have been more specific when I used the term “limits.” Though avionics technicians are known to be a sneaky bunch; perhaps one of Northwest’s techs thought it would be funny to re-program the fly-by-wire computer so that it would consider landing in Minnesota a prohibited maneuver and institute a corrective response of flying to Wisconsin instead.

  16. zentex says:

    I love the buzzword the media is using “Situational Awareness”. Imma start using that.

    Her: “You forgot today was my birthday didn’t you?!”

    Me: “I have no recollection of my situational awareness at that time.”

  17. GearheadGeek says:

    If this had happened on the east coast (especially in the vicinity of NYC or DC) those “other planes” trying to contact them would probably have been F16s. While they only overshot their destination by about 15 minutes or so, they overshot the point at which they should have begun to descend in preparation for landing at MSP by a LONG shot. GitEmSteveDave has a good theory about overwriting the cockpit voice recorder. I don’t know anything about the type of recorder used… if it’s using magnetic tape, the previous recording that was overwritten MIGHT be recoverable, but I’m guessing no one will put in the effort just the end the commercial careers of these 2 pilots, since no one was injured.

  18. Nighthawke says:

    Knew of one Continental puddle jumper that screwed up on approach to CRP (Corpus Christi). He misjudged, performed the long approach procedure and wound up landing on Cabaniss Naval Air Station’s instead! It took over 6 hours to sort things out and get the passengers to CRP.

    Both airfields are close to each other and the runways in question are lined up close end to end. If the pilot does not take the time to check the airport notes he would discover the similarities before he winds up getting his license yanked.

    I can actually see this happening due to all the fun and games management is putting their peons through. But the pilots need to wield discretion as to where to hold their little chats at.

    • Esquire99 says:

      You don’t get your license taken for that kind of thing. Maybe a suspension or a 709 Ride (recertification), but it’s very unlikely that they would actually revoke his license for making a mistake that didn’t result in injury or damage to the airplane or property.

      • floraposte says:

        @Esquire99: I would imagine that that kind of thing might actually be more forgiven than a “cockpit distraction” incident of the Northwest type. One’s an easy mistake to make, the other is a sustained screwup.

    • duffman13 says:

      @Nighthawke: I went through naval flight training in corpus, and it is pretty tricky if you’ve never seen it before. It actually if what the isntructors say is true, is probably a yearly occurence for at least one civilian flight to land at NAS corpus

  19. AllanG54 says:

    This will all be straightened out when the cockpit voice recorder tapes are played. If there’s a lot of zzzzzzzzzs you know the pilots were asleep. If there’s a lot of talking or anything else, well, we’ll know about that too.

  20. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    How terrifying is it to be a passenger on that plane, realize you should have landed by then, not have any information as to why you haven’t landed, and upon landing, find out your pilots may have been asleep?

    • floraposte says:

      @pecan 3.14159265: The passengers didn’t know until they landed that anything was wrong. (Remember, this all happened in the dark.)

      • Skaperen says:

        @floraposte: With the exception of a long flight to/from California, I have always been able to tell where I am based on the ground layout and the lights, at least when near (around 100 miles) any major cities … even in the dark (as long as my view isn’t blinded by cabin lights). I would definitely have wondered why “circling” Minneapolis/St. Paul was “so far out”.

        • floraposte says:

          @Skaperen: Could be some passengers did too, but they haven’t been heard from. All the ones heard from said they didn’t know there was a problem.

        • subtlefrog says:

          @Skaperen: Or if they had one of those little monitors showing the plane’s progress – wait a second…why are we over the wrong state???

  21. pot_roast says:

    Argument or sleeping? The tapes will tell. If they hear “ZzZzZzZzZ” then we know the answer.

  22. Urgleglurk says:

    Seems to me that the Delta/Northwest merger isn’t going well…Talk about matter and antimatter colliding!
    They were probably arguing about the merger of the pilot seniority list.

  23. LVSinner says:

    Its possible that they fell asleep since they stopped responding to the radio an hour before their scheduled arrival time.

    My question is, the pilots, who are locked in the cockpit now thanks to 9/11, if they fall asleep, is their anything in place for the flight attendants to:

    1) to be alerted from air traffic controllers if the pilots don’t respond?

    2) open the doors and wake their asses up!

    Any flight attendants here?

    • GitEmSteveDave_IsStrongInTheSnark says:

      @LVSinner: IIRC, they have a direct intercom to the cockpit.

    • selianth says:

      @LVSinner: This was going to be my question. Wouldn’t the flight attendants have some kind of awareness of the time, and when they didn’t start descending anywhere near the correct time for landing, at least knock on the cockpit door (or however they can contact the pilots)and try to find out what’s happening?

      • selianth says:

        @selianth: Never mind, I just read a couple of the other articles people have linked here in the comments, and the NYT article says that it WAS a flight attendant alerting them that prompted them to turn the plane around. I still wonder why it took half and hour for the attendant to wake them up, or get them to stop arguing, or whatever the issue was.

  24. rhys1882 says:

    They were asleep. But they won’t be able to confirm it with tapes because the cockpit recorder only had space to catch the last 30 minutes of the flight, at which point they had discovered their mistake. The cockpit recorder is for recovering information if there is a crash, not spying on pilots. Arguing about airline policy? What a lame excuse, clearly intended to make it sound like they were doing something work related. No way you are arguing so much you miss multiple radio calls. I say they give them a lie detector test.

    • floraposte says:

      @rhys1882: CVRs vary in length, with some going up to two hours. The airline spokesperson didn’t know the length of the one installed on this particular aircraft.

  25. Razor512 says:

    hey no ones perfect, it is easy to make those mistakes. and so what, 15 feet 150 miles whats the difference it is just a quick job to to where you need to go when the plane lands JK

  26. micmuk says:

    What’s the beef? They got more

    air miles” didn’t they?

    A bit further and they would have been shot down by Canadian Air Force Biplanes.


  27. sevenwhitehorses says:

    No matter what the cause they were, by omission, inattentive. They missed hand offs. If the radios had malfunctioned they would have been required to have adhered to their last received instructions. They obviously did not do this, so even trying to back track to that argument would/will not work. I grant that on long flights there are substantially long periods of no communicating with ATC, however, they should have been aware they were at the end of their route. There was a lot to do along ways out such as begin their descent and to talk with their company of the company frequency, I wonder what their company has to say about that?! There are a lot of qualified people who would like to fill those seats. Just fire them and train a couple of people who will not abuse their job and the safety of their passengers.

  28. sevenwhitehorses says:

    opps, a long ways out…. and talk on not of the company freq, sorry.

  29. zzxx says:

    I am a minor big shot in my company. No matter how interesting and colorful I make a meeting, I still see people sleeping in their chairs. I once saw pictures of congressmen on duty sleeping. When I was on jury duty during a trial I saw that too. Truckers and commuters regularly fall asleep at the wheel and cause the most devastating accidents. Many times I see security guards asleep in cars while on duty. How about police on speeding watch? I wonder how many of them are asleep.

    Why can’t people stay awake while on duty?

    This is one of the reasons why our country is going downhill.

    • Rachacha says:

      @zzxx: In part, because a pilot normally has nothing to do but get the plane in the air and land it, and for the 2+ hours in between, flip a couple of switches while the autopilot flies the plane. If your brain is not stimulated, and you are in a situation that is not new, most people will fall asleep regardless of how much sleep they received.

    • pz says:

      @zzxx: Maybe because in this country we’re all worked nearly to death.

      Little time for sleep when you’re working 90hours a week and still have to manage your private life, you know?

      Sucks not living in a country with mandated time off and (most of the time) a max number of hours you’re allowed to work per week, don’t it?

      • zzxx says:

        @pz: Pilots have mandated time off. So does the rest of the crew.

        We are not worked to death in this country. I would think workers in Asia and India work harder. So do the various manufacturing workers in China.

        I can tell you that you will be hard pressed to find someone who works more than 60 hours on a regular basis in corporate America.

        Before you blast me, I know an owner of a restaurant that stays at work about 80 hours per week. He does not work hard or work continuously. He does not stay behind the line at all. He just walks around and manages. There are times that he does nothing for several hours.

        Most people here work about 45 hours per week, get three weeks off and take about 4 sick days per year. Commutes are about an hour and a half each way. Its not a bad existence.

  30. PDQ2 says:

    150 miles overshooting the runway, plus another 150 miles coming back. That’s 300 extra frequent flier miles!!!

  31. Rachacha says:

    Everyone is missing the most obvious scenerio. The Pilots had just finished watching Stephen King’s “The Langoliers” [] and were doing their part to safe the plane and surviving passengers from certain death.

  32. Omali says:

    Next they’ll be charging an extra fee if you expect your plane to let out in the correct state.

  33. hi says:

    Glad to see security so high after 9/11. Before 9/11 when physics and law defied reality NORAD would have scrambled planes to escort them within 15 minutes. But thanks to the new rules the president or vice president now make the call which makes no sense. Didn’t help anything on 9/11 and didn’t help here either. What if they were gonna fly into something? Your right.. they just would have (flown into something) if that were the case.

  34. H3ion says:

    I think the problem is that the pilot was using Google Maps and his ISP had a malfunction.

  35. Gracegottcha says:

    Wow, that’s REALLY scary. What the heck are pilots paid for if not to FLY THE DAMN PLANE?

    • Esquire99 says:

      Commercial Airline pilots are paid to takeoff, turn on the autopilot, monitor the autopilot and the radios, and sometimes disengage the autopilot to land (some planes have autoland, so all the pilot has to do is monitor it and taxi in after landing). There is very little “flying” done by the pilots anymore. In some ways, they are just babysitters who have a very specialized skill set that they will use if something goes wrong.

  36. AngryK9 says:

    Damned human beings. How dare they not always be perfect every time.