Missed by 150 Miles?

By Kim Smiley

On October 21, 2009, Northwest Airlines Flight 188 left San Diego and overshot its intended destination, Minneapolis-St. Paul by about 150 miles. Luckily, the incident resulted in a safe landing at the intended destination, but the circumstances surrounding the flight remain vague and unsettling.

One of the strangest facts that have come out is that the plane lost contact with air-traffic controllers for one hour and 18 minutes.  In the post 9/11 aviation environment, controllers are very sensitive to planes that quit responding to communications.  The Federal Aviation Administration had contacted military authorities about the possibility of terrorism.  Fighter jets were ready to respond and prepared to intercept the plane if necessary.

So what happened?  How did the pilots overshoot the airport by such a significant amount without realizing their mistake?

Initial reports were that the pilots stated that they were in a heated discussion and simply lost situational awareness, but many aviation experts have stated it is unlikely that pilots would miss repeated hails for over an hour because of an argument.  Other reports have speculated that maybe both pilots fell asleep.

The most recent information to come out is that the pilots were using their laptops during the time they failed to respond to hails.  The pilots stated that they both were working on laptops and that they were discussing monthly flight crew scheduling.

Details concerning the overshoot are still being investigated, but an initial root cause analysis can be started to help document the investigation as it progresses.  This is what an Outline could look like at this stage:

A preliminary Cause Map can be started at this stage of an investigation.  As more information is known a detailed Cause Map can be built to document all the relent information.

More data should be available soon.  The Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder have both been sent to the National Transportation Safety Board for analysis and interviews of all involved parties continue.

On October 28, it was announced that the FAA has revoked the licenses of the two pilots involved because they violated several federal regulations, including fail to comply with air traffic control instructions and operating carelessly and recklessly. There are no currently specific federal rules banning the use of laptops after the flight reaches 10,000 feet at this time.