Eating our Young: The Final Flap About NWA 188

By Robert Mark on February 2nd, 2010

image I’ve actually been trying to write this article for quite awhile. It was much tougher than I thought simply because I’m what my wife the psychologist would call conflicted, unsure of where I stood, 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 at the switch was to revoke the certificates of the two cockpit crew members. Surprisingly, even to me, I agreed with the Fed’s decision.

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So what else is there to say you might be wondering if I’ve already decided that hanging these guys out to dry was the right course of action. That’s where social media all took over.

Although the responses I saw to the NWA story weren’t nearly as acrimonious as some of those from my experiences in West Palm Beach, it was pretty clear that many of you thought I’d lost my mind. I won’t mention any names but let’s just say that all of you are people for which I have an enormous amount of respect.

One said I’d turned quite cynical, another reader said I was crazy and wouldn’t have put up with the Fed’s action if it had happened to me while another said he was surprised overall at how quickly we seem ready to throw our brothers and sisters under a bus when they screw up. Actually, I believe he used the phrase “eating our young,” which made the point pretty graphically I’d say.

So here’s the deal. My job as an editor and a teacher is to comb the industry for topics and issues that Scott and I can both react to in a sort of teaching moment, which is of course, pretty convenient since Scott and I both moonlight as teachers. But a true teacher must also be a good listener. They must be open-minded enough to consider the views of others and maybe, on occasion, rethink a few of their own philosophies. In this case, I think all our readers who told me both online and off that I was goofy might just have been right.

But if I were going to rethink the whole NWA188 issue, I’d need to figure out just why I stood with the Feds, which traditionally I’d never do. Hence, the delay of a couple of months in writing this post. And seriously folks, I woke up a few nights thinking about this so I knew it was serious.

And the Answer is?

Here’s my thinking. You can all take it for what it’s worth, but it’s the best I can do.

I spent a lot of time and money over the past 35 years to win the pocketful of pilot certificates I now hold, including my flight instructor certificate. For those of you who may not be instructors, being a CFI means recertifying every two years, or you lose your ability to teach. I was actually appalled when a friend of mine told me he was going to let his CFI expire. For me, only over my dead body. 

These certificates represent not just an ability to earn money as a professional pilot, but they really translate into quite a bit of what makes me … well, me. A hard worker, a professional pilot and someone who respects the talents of others.

To me, those two NWA guys took a couple of great jobs and tossed them in the toilet because they were completely out to lunch for some reason. It honestly doesn’t even matter to me why they zoned out. As one of our readers said too, “I don’t know exactly what those two pilots were doing, but I only know they weren’t doing what they should have been.” Pretty smart lady.

Having had an airline pulled out from under me in bankruptcy 20 years ago – original Midway Airlines, best job I ever had too – I think I probably did overreact to these two dopes, but only because at a time when there were so many other professional pilots on the street, these idiots essentially gave the Feds their jobs. I was angry, really angry and it obviously showed.

So to all of you – Bill, Stephen, Norman, Jim and so many others – let me offer you not an apology, because at the time I said what I did, I truly believed it.

Let’s say this is more of an explanation that confirms what my wife/shrink told me … that perhaps I was projecting a bit on these two pilots because I couldn’t imagine anyone throwing away this job. I still can’t imagine how they zoned out for so long, but as one of you pointed out, I’d still want my day in court. And it’s not right that we don’t stand together in a crisis. That happens way too much these days in too many industries.

I’ve learned quite a bit about this industry and myself over the past few months. Hopefully I’ve drawn the correct line in the sand this time. What exactly DID happen to those two NWA pilots by the way?

Thanks for reading.

Rob Mark, editor


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17 Responses to “Eating our Young: The Final Flap About NWA 188”

  1. Chad Says:

    Rob, I blame the 24/7 media (including social media) for the quick finger pointing after the NW188 incident. Everyone is so quick to judge and then post their opinion online these days. The NW188 pilots were tried and found guilty by the online media less than 24 hours after the event, despite not having all of the fact. Sometimes it’s just better to just state what is known (you know, the facts) and let the accused have their day in court.

  2. Joe d'Eon Says:

    The pilots didn’t do their jobs correctly. Regardless of extenuating circumstances, they didn’t maintain situational awareness.

    The FAA didn’t do their job correctly. They didn’t follow their own policies, and they pulled the pilots’ tickets before even determining the facts.

    The media didn’t do their job correctly. They didn’t report the facts, they reported conclusions in a sensationalized manner.

  3. Madeleine Monaco Says:


  4. Bill Says:

    Thanks for finally letting the adrenaline drain down a bit.

    A lot of good folks were caught up in the media circus where we were told to think that the two pilots should be thrown away for actions that certainly didn’t look good.

    My observation is that the media lately is now in “directed outrage” mode. Where the public is told (hounded, actually) to be outraged at whatever; whether it’s school children singing praises of Obama or pilots zooming past their destination. I seriously wonder if the public has lost the ability to think critically given the facts at hand, to reach their own conclusions any more.

    As for NWA 188:
    Was anyone killed? no
    Was anyone hurt? no
    Was anyone drunk? no
    Was anything damaged? no
    Was safety really ever in jeopardy? [I say] no.
    Did it look bad? yes – Is that really a crime worth two careers?

    The irony is that for the first four offenses listed, pilots often seem to get their jobs and certificates back. yet, the least offensive item gets the big penalty (with the exception of the ‘ultimate’ penalty paid for when things really go bad)

    Their offense was subtle. They hardly realized they were doing it themselves. It’s not like they buzzed the tower in a fit of insanity.

    Thanks for your new statement.


  5. Wilko Says:

    Two pilots completely oblivious to radio calls, situational awareness etc. may be subtle but I believe it was still dangerous and reflected poorly on the industry. No doubt, autopilot cruising can be a little boring but ATC handoffs should keep at least one person engaged in the process of flying. The co-pilot, Richard Cole went on record :All Im saying is we were not asleep; we were not having a fight; there was nothing serious going on in the cockpit that would threaten the people in the back at all, Really? How serious is an F-16 interception? How threatening is a traffic conflict requiring a change of altitude and they just didnt know?

    Im a commercial pilot (not for a living) and I can, in small part, understand how hard it was to obtain those credentials. However, we dont need to give the American public any more reasons to fear flying. The profession doesnt need an image of pilots asleep at the switch and anything less than professional. I think the revocation was appropriate.

  6. Mike Irwin Says:


    Don’t beat up on yourself … pilots are human, not super human either, some shouldn’t be in the cockpit period … as you probably know as an instructor, it takes good common sense (80%)and some knowledge on how to fly (20%) to get an airplane into the air and back on the ground safely.

    That said, those two pilots fell asleep period, which has happened before and didn’t admit to same.. which would have saved us all a lot of time, energy and money.

    They lied and mutually came up with a BS story, jeopardized lives of passengers both in their aircraft, and others plus any unlucky person on the ground once they ran out of fuel.

    Losing their licenses, should be just the start, criminal negligence should be next.Thank someone, that we have passengers and controllers who pay attention.

    Maybe we ought to thank a Flight Attendant, the one that went into the cockpit and woke them up(Opinion).

    Bottom Line, we all make mistakes, fess up… pay the penalty and move on.

    Don’t know if this makes you feel better, but it did me.

    Mike Irwin

  7. aaron gellman Says:

    Rob–I gather your conversion relates only to due process as you (and many others) see it. OK. But here is a case where it takes too much time for the FAA to “investigate” and base any action on the results. If this were a complicated set of circumstances, I could understand a delay. The facts are very clear.

    I would also note that recent headline-worthy air carrier mishaps have greatly raised the public’s awareness and attention to all things related to airline safety. The Air France and Colgan accidents–especially the latter for the U.S.–are cases in point. This contributed to FAA’s quick-to-judge reaction for it has been clear for a long time that the agency has become more politically-driven than is good for the FAA, the nation and all things aviation. That’s just the way it is and there is mounting evidence that this Administration wanrs it that way, probably more than any before.

    All this puts a heightened premium, especially on the airlines and those that train pilots,to stress safety perhaps more than has sometimes been the case recently. In fact, Rob, I suggest your publication take a position in the van of progress by beginning to define anew what pilot training curriculum best serves the interest of general aviation, the airlines, the regulators and, perhaps, even the military.

  8. Dan Dickgrafe Says:

    Even though I’m not a pilot, I understand that whatever happened on that flight deck was wrong. I expect the Feds to take steps to safeguard the flying public, but I can’t say I approve of tanking two careers without knowing all the facts.

    My wife is an attorney, and she’s taught me that there are ALWAYS at least two sides to a story. What still bothers me is that we haven’t heard them all yet. I’ll reserve judgment until then.

  9. Rob Mark Says:


    The facts are clear that these guys weren’t paying attention. No one disputes that.

    But other than soothing an already frightened public, the notice of Emergency Revocation solved what exactly? Simply suspending them would have had the same result.

    And this FAA wants fast action more than any other? I’m not sure if you’re saying that’s good or bad. After nearly a decade with Marion and Bobby in charge, this one action on Randy Babbitt’s part doesn’t seem that hostile to me. Silly perhaps, but not necessarily hostile.

    As for what training curriculum serves the stakeholders, I’d say the one the FAA and ALPA negotiated 15 years ago – one level of safety – would do just fine.

    Even the dummies at United would never let a pilot out into the world who had never even observed the stall of a large airplane in the simulator as the Colgan people did flying for Continental.

    I don’t know that we need a new pilot training curriculm. What we need are airline managers who will actually follow the guidelines already in place.

  10. Norman Says:


    It is rare that we find someone who has such a fine and subtle mix of journalist, teacher, academic and pilot who manages to remain what we all would recognise as an aviator.
    Your response to this incident has done nothing to dent the high opinion I have of you since we laughed over our eggs and coffee a while ago. Quite the opposite in fact.

    Could I offer another perspective on post incident reporting and handling?


    We have a system installed in all our aircraft that monitors a quadrillion flight and instrument parameters and records them to disk. After landing they are downloaded and auto-analysed to find deviations from our standard operating procedures. Where this happens a spike is produced which pops up in front of what we call our SESMA Manager.
    If this ‘spike’ warrants it he may talk to our union SESMA Rep and share all the available information with him (these are carefully negotiated protocols and rigidly adhered to).
    The facts are jointly analysed; later, if appropriate the crew are contacted and either explain the unique circumstances forcing the deviation from our defined safe operational parameters, or they discover through PC simulation of the flight where they might have done things differently. Lessons are extracted and if required, procedures adjusted.

    This all happens with ZERO JEOPARDY to the crew concerned.
    If training is required it is provided. If we fly either through or very close to a SESMA parameter often the first act on return to base is to contact either the SESMA Manager or the union SESMA Rep to discuss it to give them a heads-up. This provides timely information that may be useful before the next aircraft rotates through a station.

    In this way we get to see across the worldwide network where recurrent problems lie and promulgate briefings to crews through normal channels. This makes for a safer environment where trouble is anticipated and avoided rather than discovered and mitigated.

    SESMA trends are plotted across fleets and destinations, everything from rushed approaches through deep landings are pushed out to the company pilot community and further into the system where it might help.

    SESMA does a lot more that I can’t illuminate in a post comment.

    The CAA love it.
    The AIRLINE loves it.
    The CREWS trust it.
    The UNION trusts it.
    The INSURERS love it.
    The PRESS never sees it – it is an analysis tool.

    The only people that sometimes don’t like SESMA are controllers who try to rush an approach or offer us situations that expedite traffic but produce pressure laden circumstances that can contribute to an incident or worse. When they get the briefing from the SESMA Managers being the professionals they are they ‘get it’and often want to know more.

    What matters is that every lesson possible is learned from an incident. Anything that gets in the way of that might cost someone their life further down the road.

    We are certainly not perfect and still have close calls from time to time. The difference is that we see them and act to stop ones like it next time.

    Sorry to run on, I hope this doesn’t sound like a didactic lecture (8-) and thanks for your patience.

  11. Norman Says:

    Special Event Search and Master Analysis

    It didn’t reproduce between the symbols.

  12. Rob Mark Says:


    What a great story on Special Event Search and Master Analysis (SESMA). I’ve never heard of this before.

    Anyone know whether we Americans are using such a system?

    On this NWA incident though, I notice there has been no more press about it, which I’m sure the folks at Delta are really happy about. As Norman points out here though, what has anyone learned from this entire incident, other than that two guys did something really goofy?

    Not much it seems?

    But I have also had discussions with Air Traffic Controllers in Europe about how they handle incidents such as altitude busts.

    Just as the system Norman mentioned here for the airlines, the British controllers look at mistakes much more from a “What did we learn and how do we prevent this from happening again,” perspective than we ever will here in the states.

    Carbon trading excepted of course, this ins yet another example of Europe pointing out the correct direction to our industry.

  13. Norman Says:

    Thanks Rob,

    I think the US carriers are well aware of SESMA; the insurance system in the US really liked it. One major challenge to wider uptake is that it relies on a ‘large slice of faith and guaranteed pilot anonymity’ to be accepted by pilots.
    The system will not spill the identity of those who fall foul of what is essentially a ‘saintly whistle-blower’ on our shoulders.

    The US courts may be the stumbling block as they may be obliged to demand ALL available information from the aircraft should an accident occur and there be demands made for claims against individual pilots. Not my area.

    It really is quite a complex compromise of rights and responsibilities that has been struck for the creation of a system that allows progressive work to benefit flight safety.

    Does anyone else use it in the US – no sure but I can find out.

  14. Robert Mark Says:

    In fact Norman, since your earlier post, I made contact with some folks at ALPA who are going to chat a bit more about it with me.

    Stay tuned.

  15. Norman Says:

    Cool stuff, if I can help just let me know. I know our SESMA guys at work, I will send you some stuff. ;-)

  16. NLA Factor Says:

    I learned long ago that passing judgment could get me into more trouble than passing gas. I’ll leave it to those two pilots to forever be their own harshest judges.

    Having seen both the FAA and the news media rip air traffic controllers apart for apparent lapses in attention to duty; their handling of the NWA incident doesn’t surprise me at all. A rush to judgment provides both the “action” some onlookers and overseers require and it sells newspapers.

    I’ll just say those two fellows were fortunate in that their little misadventure took place when and where it did. Had it been a bit later in the flight and had they been heading for a coastal destination; their inattention could have been tragic.

    It brings to mind an incident I learned of several decades ago as a young controller. Late one mid-shift, the pilot of a small twin fell asleep at the controls and flew off the coast…way off the coast. Controllers working the guy tried desperately to raise him but to no avail. When the pilot finally woke up he was too far out to sea with too little fuel remaining to return.

    What happened with the NWA flight was not good but it was far from a worst case scenario. Those pilots and their passengers were lucky and I’m sure they know it.

  17. Free Flight Video Magazine » Blog Archive » Northwest Flight 188 Says:

    […] was interested in the opinion piece Eating our Young: The Final Flap About NWA 188 on Jetwhine, where Robert Mark explains his initial condemnation of the pilots: To me, those two […]

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