Aviation & Space Law

Did Northwest Pilots Who Flew Past Airport Fall Asleep? FAA Investigates

In what could be the second such incident involving a commercial airline flight within two years, two Northwest Airlines lost contact with ground controllers for approximately an hour and overshot their destination airport by 100 miles Wednesday night, sparking speculation that both had fallen asleep in the cockpit.

However, the two unidentified pilots told authorities after they and 147 others aboard the flight landed safely in Minneapolis that “they were in a heated discussion over airline policy and they lost situational awareness,” reports the New York Times, quoting the National Transportation Safety Board.

News reports differ about whether the pilots were eventually reached by an onboard flight attendant on an airline intercom, after failed efforts by ground control to make contact, or other pilots in the air. Once reached, the Northwest pilots were then asked to make a series of turns to confirm that they were in control of the aircraft, according to the newspaper. It was met upon landing by armed federal air marshals.

A Federal Aviation Administration investigation into the incident is continuing. Fatigue can be a problem for overworked pilots and, as the Northwest incident this week—and “Balloon boy” incident last week—demonstrated, a considerable amount of resources can be required to address a situation that eventually proves to be a far less serious problem than initially feared. Concerned about a possible terrorist attack, officials had military fighter planes ready to scramble from Madison, Wis., to intercept the jetliner just before the Northwest pilots were reached, reports the Wall Street Journal.

In February 2008, as two Go! Airlines pilots later admitted, their flight overshot Hilo International Airport near Honolulu by 30 miles because they had both fallen asleep, the Times article notes. Because commercial flights are generally on autopilot while they are cruising at high altitude, pilot input is not necessary required to keep them aloft.

Additional and related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: ” ‘Balloon Boy’ Parents to Be Charged in Alleged Hoax Promoting Reality TV Show”

Associated Press: “FAA investigators may be focusing on balloon call”

Daily Beast: “The New Cockpit Threat”

Star Tribune: “Recorder may not be help in flight mystery”

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