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Northwest Flight 188: Asleep at the stick?

One aviator has no trouble imagining that the two Northwest Airlines pilots could have been sleeping when they overshot Minneapolis.

October 28, 2009|Peter Garrison | Peter Garrison is a pilot and contributing editor to Flying magazine.

I started flying small airplanes when I was 18, and after I got out of the service, I used my GI Bill money to adorn my pilot's license with a Lear Jet rating. Most of the training consisted of takeoffs and landings at Bakersfield; we never climbed above 10,000 feet or went very fast. But at the end of the course we made a real flight -- to Las Vegas and back -- and I finally got to climb to something like a jet's cruising altitude and experience something like a jet's speed.

The cockpit of a Lear Jet -- these were old Model 24s, the jet equivalent of a '55 Chevy -- was a tight place, with a steeply slanted windshield grazing your forehead, a tall instrument panel in front of you and a console projecting back between the seats. You couldn't move around much. And there was nothing to do. The airplane flew itself, holding heading, speed and altitude with greater precision than any human could. The sound of the aft-mounted engines resembled that of a distant vacuum cleaner. The Mojave Desert crept by almost imperceptibly, too remote to be interesting except to geologists.

This was what it was be a jet pilot! Immobility, inaction and silence. It was almost like being one of those victims of locked-in syndrome who are fully aware but cannot move or speak.

So I have no trouble imagining that the two pilots of Northwest Airlines Flight 188 -- whose licenses were revoked Tuesday by the FAA -- could have been sleeping when they overshot the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles. I don't know whether they really were -- alternative explanations are still coming in -- but if so, it wouldn't be that surprising. Airline flying, with its time-zone shifts and irregular schedules, poses obvious fatigue risks. And besides the fatigue, there's the monotony. Crews intermittently receive instructions from the ground -- mostly just to change radio frequencies as they move from one air traffic sector to another -- while computers do the bulk of the work. One of the problems of cockpit automation, in fact, is finding ways to keep uninvolved pilots aware of where they are and what the airplane is doing as it traverses the vast experiential void between takeoff and landing.

We may never know for certain what happened, because the cockpit voice recorder only preserves the most recent 30 minutes. But I have to admit that I find the laptop explanation a bit hard to believe. I'm sure the merging of the Northwest and Delta seniority lists is fascinating, but still. When I'm on an instrument flight plan, I start to feel uneasy if I haven't talked with a controller in 20 minutes or so. These guys were in their own world for more than an hour -- what were they thinking? But then, they've logged a lot more hours of suspended animation than I have.

Luckily, the possibilities of cockpit automation are not yet exhausted. The folks at Boeing, knowing the soporific potential of hours spent in chairs monitoring a completely reliable computer, have equipped their 777 with a system that makes increasingly irritating wake-up noises in the cockpit if it fails to detect signs of life.

Airbus should take a look at that. And maybe it could hire Microsoft to spruce up the flight management software with a few of those "blue screens of death" that used to pop up on Windows systems when they crashed. That would keep a crew on its toes.

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