More Flap About NWA 188

By Robert Mark on December 10th, 2009

A320 My story a few weeks ago about the two guys flying past MSP and the penalty they incurred for abandoning their post for over an hour seemed like a no-brainer to me.

The two pilots were distracted for some reason we were unaware of at (Photo: Fokker Aircraft)    the time and blew past the Top of Descent (TOD) point, that spot where a Flight Management System (FMS) tells the crew, “In case you weren’t paying attention, we need to start down now in order to be in a position to land.” In some major cities, it’s not at all uncommon to hear that command 100 miles from touchdown.

These guys missed that message, and quite a few others too as they blew 150 miles past MSP. The only real questions was what these two professional aviators were up to that so distracted them from their primary job of flying the airplane. Apparently they were playing on their laptops. What really surprised me more than anything else after the Feds pulled the licenses of these two yahoos, were some of the reactions I read here and at other blogs.

Some said the FAA was being too tough on these guys who, until that moment had spotless records. There were even testimonials flying around that I posted here and that my pal Max Trescott ran again the other day. “Please give these guys a break. They’re family men,” one note said. “The local parishoners are behind them,” said another, as if this could or should excuse the conduct of these two.

This week though, the pilots began pointing fingers elsewhere, first at the Denver and Minneapolis Center controllers along the route. There might well have been a controller briefing screw-up somewhere along the way between some sectors with all the craziness as ATC tried to raise the crew.

But air traffic control wasn’t in charge of the airplane. The captain, Tim Cheney was, or should have been I guess. The regs say the person in the left seat is ALWAYS the final authority when things go wrong. Sorry, no finger-poking at ATC this time!The crew broke ranks when the first officer decided he’d rather not go down with the ship. He claimed the captain should really take most of the rap since he really was in charge anyway.

One Jetwhine comment said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first Thermos bottle. I have been taken on 120 mile TCA tours when ATC is playing Rubicks cube with the traffic, trying to get everyone sorted out during peak. Pulling tickets is not the way!”

Then there was, “Tim (the captain) said he feels very bad for the company and the pilots and is hoping for a positive outcome on their appeal. With 24 years at NWA, 21,000 blemish free hours, it would be a mistake to ruin his career over this in my opinion.”

Oh Pleeeze! – I’m not buying any of this, except the air traffic controllers. They didn’t create the situation.

Sympathizers for the pilots against the meanies at FAA and NTSB have ignored a critical element of this tale. No one got hurt this time. I doubt anyone would be rushing to defend these two if the plane had continued on to fuel exhaustion and crashed or watched as their “ADD-like” symptoms lead them into some other emergency situation.

These guys weren’t made an example of. They could have killed 144 passengers as well as themselves and the rest of the crew because they were playing on their laptops.

If you believe the story about them only pulling out their computers for a few minutes before they realized they were 150 miles past MSP, then I have a great piece of property in the Everglades I’d like to sell you. The gators are real friendly too. Trust me.

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22 Responses to “More Flap About NWA 188”

  1. Twitter Updates for 2009-12-10 | Bill Next Best Blog Says:

    […] @jetwhine: New blog post: More Flap About NWA 188 http://www.jetwhine.com/2009/12/more-flap-about-nwa-188/ #flying […]

  2. Patrick Flannigan Says:

    Well of course they’re going to point the finger at ATC Rob, who else can they possibly blame? Certainly not themselves, and I’m sure that’s exactly what the lawyers told them to do.

    You know what surprises me the most is that they passed a busy airport like MSP. At major hubs, you are almost always assigned a full arrival procedure, which is pre-programmed into the FMS. Arrivals usually have a lot of small turns, followed by a big turn that dumps the airplane on something analogous to a downwind leg.

    Even in IMC, I notice my airplane making subtle turns over waypoints and it draws my attention to the moving map display just to verify that the airplane is doing what it was supposed to do. How do you overlook all those turns every time?

  3. Stephen Ruby Says:

    In response to this uncanny irresponsible scenario, we have yet another blatant example of immaturity by two professionals. I’m not at all sympathetic with their plea’s. I read the recent explanation of the failure of ATC as the culprit in this oversight.

    Nope, not buying it. The crew in this case should remain grounded!!….C’est la Vie

  4. Kim Welch Says:

    With no intention to argue your conclusion or defend the pilots, I would like to point something out for sake of accuracy: you refer to the TOD point as if it is always and automatically present on the FMS Nav Display. It is not.

    The TOD will appear when, and only if, the pilot enters a descent profile of some sort. This will come when an arrival is selected and entered, assuming it has altitude restrictions. It can also happen when the pilot enters a more manual, “30 miles west of MSP at 10,000”.

    It is not at all a given that the arrival was entered earlier in the flight. In all my years with DL, this step would come only after actually receiving the ATC clearance for the arrival …. or maybe a little earlier if I was pretty certain of what the clearance I would receive.

    But even on my innumerable arrivals into KATL, the world’s busiest airport by the way, it was not at all unusual in the wee hours to get that coveted, “cleared direct ATL, cross 30 out at 10 & 250”.

    So, the simple point I would make is that it cannot be assumed that the FMS TOD was flashing at this crew. Judging by their self described “distraction”, I would guess that, to the contrary, the FMS had not been so programmed.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    Excellent point Kim. I kind of skimmed over the details of the FMS a bit.

    Unfortunately for the crew here, I think your point about them probably missing that element of the arrrival procedure just make the whole thing look worse for them.

  6. Robert Mark Says:

    To Patrick’s point as well, I cannot imagine how these guys sat there with no awareness of their situation.

    Even if they were on the wrong ATC frequency, the guy working the radios simply forgot to check in for over an hour?

    But to another point that a reader made to me on Twitter yesterday (Yes, I did try to get him to post it here).

    He told me that pulling their licenses was unfair because they were deprived of due process, to which I mentioned that FAA and NTSB have the power to make exceptions in cases like this.

    Our reader then told me that I’d be yelling to high heaven if I’d been deprived of my due process in a case like this.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t.

    If I had been in command of this flight, I’d want to hide in a corner somewhere because I would be so embarassed at what I’d done.

    I would have honestly assumed that by the Feds pulling my certificate for endangering the lives of so many I was hired to protect, that I’d gotten off easy.

    But that’s just me.

  7. DF Says:

    Hi Rob
    Just thought I’d throw my two cents in here. Pilots are all human and make mistakes and errors in judgment.

    Just because they have a blemish-free record doesn’t mean they are perfect. It just means they haven’t been caught or they managed to keep their mistakes from getting documented.

    We used to have pilots call the Tracon after they landed if they screwed up. Rarely did those discussions ever move to the point where the company or chief pilot was notified.

  8. Bill Says:

    A note on Kim’s point: While that is true of the Boeing installed FMSs, it is not of the Airbus. That FMS does not require a descent constraint to calculate a descent profile and path, with the accompanying TOD point. Without those, the FMS assumes a default profile to the already-entered destination airport. There would be a little white arrow on the ND at the TOD point and a corresponding FMS message “DECELERATE” if you fly past it in cruise (no audible alert).

    That being said, Rob,I find your tone in this entry to be quite different than most of your usual posts. More cynical maybe.

    I think your claim that they “could have killed 144 passengers…” is really a stretch. That scenario, I assume, requires them to continue to lolly-gag along for over an additional hour until they ran out of fuel at which point the airplane falls like a rock to their deaths – just like in the movies; during which time the Low Fuel message an audible “ding” are ignored. That is a more likely scenario had they both been sound asleep – all evidence seems to indicate they were not. Ironically, they may have had less severe consequences had they been asleep and claimed it a fatigue issue.

    However, I don’t find the F/O’s recent argument convincing that it wasn’t his fault since he was the pilot monitoring (and the captain was flying). That would put him in charge of working the radios as his primary occupation during that time. So, other than the usual “captain is the final authority and responsibility, etc, etc.” that puts it right back on him as a critical link in the chain of events, which as usual – if you take any one link out, you have no incident.

    It seemed to me that the FAA’s Emergency Revocation action was a much related to media attention as anything else. I recall that the hearings on the issue had not even concluded before that action was taken.

  9. Dr. Boyd Falconer Says:

    The NWA 188 incident brings into focus many issues regarding fallible human operators in a complex, dynamic system. There are many aspects of the incident that need to be investigated many of them human factors, to be sure, but also many more detached system, cultural and policy areas.

    The ATC officers involved in the incident should be called into question, sure they were participants in the scenario. Thats what I call a full investigation (yes, theres probably some lawyers for the pilots behind the move also, but so be it).

    However, I agree strongly with Rob on the notion of responsibility. As a former captain of large multi-engine aircraft, I know that the responsibility for the safe flight of the aircraft and my crew always (always, always!) rested with me. The key to ensuring safe flight is VIGILANCE.

    While a fascinating area of human performance, from a practical standpoint vigilance (and its cousin Situation Awareness) is all about being cognitively on duty, on task and in command of a flying piece of machinery while limiting lesser distractions and cognitive tasks. Did the pilots maintain vigilance? Were they aware of their situation? The answers to those questions seem clear.

    One final comment. To me (and please excuse the science angle again), the license withdrawal/loss is a sound decision based on risk mitigation and the traveling public. I dont see it as punishment (though I can understand that many do, including the pilots involved). Its a means temporary or otherwise of protecting potential loss of lives. Licenses are a privilege.

  10. Mike Patterson Says:

    I think two pilots were both asleep, period.

    The only smart thing they did was fly the aircraft for 30 minutes past the time they discussed the fact that they fell asleep, so it would erase the cockpit voice recorder, deleting all evidence of them falling asleep and then discussing how best to handle that situation.

    The had a moving map and could not have missed that, as even a laptop has a clock on it that shows how long they were using it, if you buy that story at all!

  11. Stephen Says:

    Mike, I’ve been saying this since it happened, and I’m still of the opinion that it did!!

  12. Rob Mark Says:

    Cynical huh Bill?

    Maybe just a tad although it wasn’t intentional. You’re right, they probably wouldn’t have continued on until fuel exhaustion, but I guess I’m just irritated that after this highly-publicized incident, there seems to be so much discussion about the poor pilots.

    My point was that no one seemed to be thinking about the folks in back, not to mention that the last thing the industry needed was another black eye after Buffalo.

  13. Stephen Says:

    Well done Rob!!

  14. Airplane Geeks - Episode 77 - Harteveldt Returns | Airplane Geeks Podcast Says:

    […] More Flap About NWA 188 […]

  15. Annonymous Says:

    After reading your latest post on the subject of NWA 188, it seems to border on hysteria comparable to the mainstream media outlets. There is no doubt that these guys had their heads up and locked. And there certainly should be some punishment.

    But revocation of their flight certificates is the equivalent of the death penalty in this business. If the FAA and NTSB revoked a ticket every time a pilot was stupid or an air traffic controller had an error, neither job would be a career field.

    I am an air traffic controller who happens to hold a couple of ratings. Pilots miss calls all the time. Controllers misspeak all the time. Sometime the confluence of events become media fodder.

    The Comair crash in Lexington was not because two pilots had a one sentence comment violating the sterile cockpit rule while taxiing. It was a sequence of events that started with the FAA violating its own staffing rules.

    The crash in Buffalo was not due to a sick copilot or bad weather. In my opinion, it appears to be training to minimum standards and the pairing of two pilots with little time in the type aircraft. A situation that has been cited many times as a causal factor in incidents during my 35 years in aviation.

    The day before the NWA 188 incident, DAL 60 lands on a taxiway just before dawn. Both situations, lost comm and landing on a taxiway, have occurred many times in the past with jet aircraft. Yet, I have not found any instance of aircraft damage or personal injury due to a lost comm incident.

    Since 9/11, for an airliner, or any aircraft operating in Class A airspace, to be NORDO for that duration is because someone is not following procedures on the ATC/Homeland Security side. If the NTSB and FAA are going to revoke the certificates of the pilots, then the whole system needs to be held to the same standard: Follow procedure to the letter or lose the ability to earn a living in your trade. Trust me, the ability to hire quality people and retain them would be impossible.

    Good pilots and good controllers have the ability to work around the unplanned events and still make it work safely. This occurs even if not procedurally correct, but still follows the spirit of the procedure.

    Two pilots with a cumulative 35,000 hours without a violation speak volumes on their abilities and professionalism. Let’s find out how the system allowed an air carrier to fly for almost 90 minutes without communications instead of blaming two guys fighting the ever present boredom in highly automated aircraft.

  16. Rob Mark Says:

    Mmmmmm. Seems like I may have crossed the line here, not something I tend to do very often. A friend pulled me aside too at our regular Saturday morning breakfast at the airport the other day and said the same thing.

    I respect the opinions I’m seeing here and perhaps I am being too harsh on these guys although if this had been my certificate, I would have been too embarrassed to fight back.

    I happen to see this as much different from the Delta incident at ATL the same week. Those guys were flying the airplane and made the wrong decision. These guys weren’t even paying attention.

    So let me ask all of you this. If they had a formal hearing and both FAA AND the NTSB agreed they should have their certificates revoked, what would be your response?

    Or let’s try another direction.

    This exact situation happened to you – all of you who have spent time reading these NWA 188 posts. You had your laptop out for an hour and completely missed all the hints that something important was happening around you when you should have been flying the aircraft.

    I’m the chief pilot – although actually, Al or Bill would be better to play that role.

    What would the response be when the boss says to you, “What in god’s name were you doing up there? For over an hour then, no one was actually in charge of an airplane with 150 people on it? And I should simply slap you on the wrist and ask if everyone learned something here?

    And you say what exactly?

    And I’m honestly not being argumentative on this. I’d really like to hear some input from any of you on how you talk your way out of this.

  17. Stephen Says:

    I would have never allowed myself to be in this position, what so ever..Don’t like what I’m doing? then fire me!! I was looking for a job when I found this one. Flight Safety says “The best safety device in any airplane is a well trained pilot”

  18. Norman Says:

    What astonishes me sometimes is how willing we are to eat our young even before we have seen the results of the enquiry and seen the official conclusions. That isn’t a direct snipe at anyone here, it happens everywhere – we are very tough on ourselves and our peers in aviation aren’t we?

    The opportunities for making a mistake out there are colossal, I know because I have made a few and got away with them. What really matters is that we all learn the lessons from any that are made and don’t repeat them.

    Sanction – sure, all things being equal and as assumed demote the captain for an appropriate period and council both of them. Counselling as in, “WTF! now lets look at where we screwed up.” They will exert far more trauma on themselves than can be ladled in by the system.

    Laptops on the flight deck are probably not a good idea when the content is distracting and compelling as opposed to reference based (movies and music v performance/weather/AIS). Banning laptops isn’t going to do it, if it is we may as well trash EFB now and have done with it.

    ‘Heard of the cat-o’-nine tails aboard His Majesties Ships in the 1800s? They had the miscreant weave his own lash and stitch in the knobbly bits so that enhanced pain was guaranteed. If he failed to make it well enough, they used the ‘Master At Arms’ copy which was barbaric.
    That do you Rob? LOL

    In jest,

    Norman ;-)

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    […] or at least I was until a few days ago. If you follow us here, you’ll by now know I wrote a couple of articles on the two Northwest/Delta guys who blew past MSP last October. The Feds quickly decided the best recourse to stem the tide of public paranoia about pilots asleep […]

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    […] or at least I was until a few days ago. If you follow us here, you’ll by now know I wrote a couple of articles on the two Northwest/Delta guys who blew past MSP last October. The Feds quickly decided the best recourse to stem the tide of public paranoia about pilots asleep […]

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