Saturday, October 24, 2009

I so do not get this

Experts Puzzle Over How Flight Overshot Airport.

Include me as one of those experts.

To put things in an idiotshell (nutshell does not do it justice): The pilots overflew their destination by 150 miles, which means they went about 250 miles, or 30 minutes beyond their descent point.

They went 400 miles, or about 50 minutes, without talking to anyone. Getting lost on the frequency handoff between sectors happens occasionally, either through a controller directing the crew the next frequency and not noticing the absence of a readback because the crew missed the call, or the controller forgetting to make the hand-off in the first place.

It happens. No big deal. There are several means to overcome this: controllers attempting contact through other aircraft in the area, transmitting on "Guard" (while airborne, radio 2 is set to a common monitoring frequency), or telling the companies operations control to send the new frequency to the crew via datalink.

No big deal unless all efforts are to no avail, over a prolonged period, as here. That raises serious issues about crew situational awareness.

Not to not worry, they get even more serious.

At Northwest/Delta, flights over one hour require recording fuel and arrival time at least once per hour. Clearly, they weren't doing this.

But wait, there's more. The ancient, hand-tooled, traditional round-dial approach to flying required deriving information from a fair amount of abstract data.

Not anymore:


The aircraft with the headless vectors (all speed and no direction) at the controls was an A320, this picture is from an MD11. However, for the point at hand, the distinction is without difference. The crew had to completely ignore, or be droolingly ignorant of, certain very graphic symbology.

To wit: in the center display, the line down the center represents where the airplane is going. It is never not there. Well, okay, sometimes in flight re-programming of the Nav System can lead to the magenta line disappearing. This is always accompanied by "holy cr*p", and immediate action to unscrew the thing. It is never not there, but it will not be there after overflying the destination.

Here's my best, expert guess. The crew took off their headsets on reaching cruise altitude. Absolutely standard procedure. Unfortunately, both pilots forgot to turn on their overhead speakers. This rendered attempts to contact them by radio mute.

However, it also requires them to utterly deaf to the fact that silence on the radios is not normal. (Unless one is transiting the depths of Canada even further into the night, that is.)

And not pay attention to the flight plan.

Or the airplane.

Or the clock.

Or, well, you get the point.

Nearly all aircraft mishaps have a fairly lengthy chain of circumstances for them to occur.

Not this one. All it took was two guys with room temperature IQs and a perfect lack of professionalism.

14 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I predict it will turn out they were roistering till pretty late the night before (and even that they lied about when they went to bed) and they went to sleep.

Happened with a go! jet out here a couple years ago, and they were flying PAST Hilo -- next stop Johnston Island.

October 24, 2009 12:10 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

They tested negative for alcohol.

There is no job on this planet more abusive of sleep cycles than mine, and that very much includes Northwest A320 guys.

Sometimes, during cruise, one of us will get drowsy, ask the other guy how he is doing, and announces he is going to nap in his seat. It is up to the other guy to stay alert for the duration.

I have done the Honolulu to Hilo flight. It is short and busy. How a pilot could fall asleep en route is a mystery to me.

October 24, 2009 4:00 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You can roister without alcohol. Maybe they made a long drive to play the horses. Just one of many possible examples I have encountered over the years for missing a night's rest.

My son-in-law has many scary stories about lack of sleep among pilots in crash houses. Northwest pilots shouldn't have to use crash houses, but that won't mean they didn't.

October 24, 2009 5:32 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I don't know that they didn't roister, only that, regardless of how they spent their layover, this incident was not alcohol related.

My son-in-law has many scary stories about lack of sleep among pilots in crash houses.

I have spent time in crash pads. I have no such stories.

October 24, 2009 6:36 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

They say they weren't sleeping here.

Sounds mighty lame.

Bloomberg doesn't say but I suppose they are on oath?

October 26, 2009 1:22 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Uh oh, looks like they were blogging!

October 26, 2009 3:44 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I noted this quote from erp's link:

"It's inexcusable," said former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. "I feel sorry for the individuals involved, but this was certainly not an innocuous event—this was a significant breach of aviation safety and aviation security."

My only quibble is I don't feel sorry for idiots in this profession. The FAA should permanently pull both their tickets.

October 26, 2009 5:54 PM  
Blogger Barry Meislin said...

Well, maybe they can get a job with FedEx.

Or as crop dusters.....

(Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they were flying an Airbus. They claim, supposedly, that they both(!) had their laptops out---an apparent breach of regulations in the cockpit---so it's more than pretty likely that they were either looking at airborne porn...or reading The Daily Duck. But the truth will out. Eventually.)

October 27, 2009 12:34 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Barry, I had the same thought, but dismissed it as uncharitable. s/o

Skipper, I thought using electronic gadgets in the sky was counter-indicated because they interfered with cockpit instruments.

More than just losing their licenses, shouldn't they be charged with reckless endangerment of their passengers?

October 27, 2009 5:44 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Barry:

Well, maybe they can get a job with FedEx.

That's just harsh.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they were flying an Airbus.

It has something to do with flying an Airbus, or any other Flight Management System equipped aircraft. FMSs have a lot of advantages, one of which is that it shifts workload to low task portions of the flight. Programming the FMS for expected arrival and approach while at cruise means the pilots can take a step back when it gets busy. For older airplanes, the pilots were fully involved in execution every step of the way.

The downside is the pilot-out-of-the-loop problem. Because the FMS has some limited "awareness" (it knows where it is, phase of flight, where it is going, expected altitudes and speeds) pilots can get away with being less situationally aware. And it can happen in all kinds of ways besides this one.*

In contrast, something like a DC9 requires constant attention: it has no idea of position, altitude. It won't maintain a course, change navaids, or hold speed. There is simply no way to become situationally comatose like these guys were.

The challenge is to reap the safety benefits of an FMS while not suffering the POOTL problem. Older … no, Veteran pilots such as myself started off on round dial planes. Compared to glass cockpit babies, (IMHO) we are far more inclined to be hawking the plane, and much quicker to give it the FMS the single digit salute when it stops doing what we want it to do. In part, that is because of ingrained habits of continually fighting for situational awareness: you can't disagree with the FMS if you haven't already formed an opinion of your own.

They claim, supposedly, that they both(!) had their laptops out---an apparent breach of regulations in the cockpit …

The latest story is that they were working on their schedule bids for the next month.

When I was at NWA, doing anything not directly related to flying the airplane (i.e. reading, computer) was prohibited. That is kind of silly. Generally, the flying and monitoring tasks during cruise are not very demanding (for FMS aircraft), so that really amounts to enforced complete idleness most of the time. Done responsibly, reading, crosswords, etc not only doesn't present a problem, it probably helps keep your brain ticking over.

-----

* E.g: A crew recently missed a crossing altitude restriction. (Cruising at FL330. Pilot discretion descent to cross FUBAR at FL290. FUBAR is 300 miles in front of airplane; an unusually long way out, but still a correct clearance.) Programmed FMS. Which completely failed to execute the descent because, as it turned out (and no one knew), the FMS goes stoooopid when it gets programmed that far out. Pilots earned a violation because they didn't stay in the loop.

October 27, 2009 10:51 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

erp:

Skipper, I thought using electronic gadgets in the sky was counter-indicated because they interfered with cockpit instruments.

The primary reason for the portable electronic device ban below 10,000 feet is that in the event of a problem, the FAA does not want anything distracting the passengers from what the FAs are directing. I think old analog cell phones could theoretically cause some interference with navaids, but other than that isn't a problem.

More than just losing their licenses, shouldn't they be charged with reckless endangerment of their passengers?

Oh, the list of charges could get as long as the white pages for a middling city.

They deviated from a clearance, failed to follow the flight plan, did not adhere to comm out procedures, arrived at the destination airport with less than required fuel, did not check fuel burn against the flight plan, failed to maintain a listening watch on guard, the pilot monitoring failed to confirm aircraft performance, the pilot flying failed to maintain aircraft control (if it isn't doing what it is supposed to be doing, by definition the pilot is not maintaining control).

Almost every guy I have flown with has been very professional: showed up on time, rested and prepared to fly, and performed in accordance with the rules. No single element of being a pilot is particularly complex; however, taken in totality, it is impossible, no matter how hard one tries, to fly the perfect flight.

The good pilots -- which, at the major airline level is (virtually) all of them -- never stop trying for the perfect flight.

Then there are these complete scheisskopfs. Lots of lives and money are on the line every time we apply takeoff power. They should never be allowed near anything more demanding than a riding lawnmower for the rest of their lives.

October 27, 2009 10:51 AM  
Blogger erp said...

The infractions you list are against rules for piloting, I mean criminal charges.

When I first read this, Cole Porter's line, "... flying so high with a guy in the sky, is my idea of nothing to do," came to mind.

I guess we're so blasé now those lyrics make sense and flying is just another boring day on the job.

October 27, 2009 12:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

The infractions you list are against rules for piloting, I mean criminal charges.

IANAL, but I think reckless disregard requires intent. These guys have a lot to be ashamed of, but intent isn't one of them.

++++

The first officer -- whose lawyer clearly hadn't gotten across the idea that whenever you have an opportunity to say nothing, take it -- has said there were no safety issues here.

Well, other than fuel (which I mentioned above), and the fact that if there had been thunderstorms out there, these idiots wouldn't have had a clue until they were in one.

I guess we're so blasé now those lyrics make sense and flying is just another boring day on the job.

Done right, it mostly is. However, there can be a very, very narrow line between done right and going pear shaped in a very big hurry.

Add weather, and I'll just say there have been plenty of times where I could have done with a lot more boring.

October 27, 2009 1:32 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ah for the days when the worst pilot misbehavior we ever learned about was letting a stewardess sit on his knee.

Did you ever meet the NWA pilot who drank 23 black russians before a flight and argued that he was fit to fly because he was an alcoholic and could tolerate that many?

October 27, 2009 2:25 PM  

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