Friday, November 27, 2009

Flight 188, Distracted Pilots, and Dangerously Impractical Software?

"FAA Releases Transcripts of Northwest Flight That Overflew Minneapolis"
FOXNews (November 27, 2009)

"New transcripts from the Northwest Airlines flight that overflew Minneapolis show air traffic controllers asking the crew about what happened, and whether they had enough fuel.

"Air traffic controllers asked the Northwest Airlines pilots who overflew Minneapolis repeatedly about what had happened on the plane before the pilots responded, according to transcripts released Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"The Oct. 21 flight, which took off from San Diego and overshot its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles, had been out of contact for 77 minutes before controllers re-established contact, leaving air traffic controllers scratching their heads...."

After that little incident over northeastern America, back on September 11, 2001, air traffic controllers - and the Department of Homeland Security - get very interested when airliner flight crews go silent and fly right past their scheduled destination.

The article gives excerpts from the transcript, outlining the conversation between the pilots and ground controllers. The gist of the chat, as I see it, was 'are you alone, on the flight deck, and in control of the airliner?'

"...Air traffic controllers ultimately had the pilots perform several turns to verify that they were in control of the plane. It landed safely in Minneapolis, and was met at the gate by police...."

More good news was that Flight 188 still had enough fuel to land.

And, this article says what the pilots were probably doing on their laptops, when they should have been flying the plane:

"...The pilots have told the National Transportation Safety Board that they were discussing their company's complicated new crew-scheduling program over their laptop computers as their plane flew past Minneapolis by 150 miles. Northwest was bought by Delta Air Lines Inc. last year, and the company has been working to integrate its computer systems."

About a month ago, after learning that the pilots had dropped out of communication for over an hour - and been distracted by their laptops when they should have been flying the plane - I somewhat unkindly wrote, "I don't play Donkey Kong while driving the family's van." (October 26, 2009)

I still think that those two were daft to act the way they did, but their behavior makes a little more sense.

From the looks of it, the new Delta-Northwest merger may be run by the sort of clueless executives and managers who infest the Dilbert comic strip. ( Dilbert is an engineer, working in a technology company - and whose manager once used an Etch A Sketch®, under the impression that it was a laptop computer. That manager is a tech expert, compared to the CEOs, who are even further removed - and insulated - from reality.

Granted, the pilots should not have been wrestling with some Kafkaesque 'new and improved' crew-scheduling program.

But this new bit of information suggests that the problem may not be just two pilots whose spiritual home may be somewhere in management. Maybe whoever is running Delta/Northwest needs to consider the possibility that an airline should be interested more in getting people from one place to another, without having interceptors ready to fly up and see what was wrong: and less on implementing dangerously impractical software.

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