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Pilots of Northwest Jet Facing Loss of Licenses

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 — David Evans

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The two Northwest Airline pilots who overflew their Minneapolis destination 21 October by more than 100 miles face emergency revocation of their Air Transport Pilot (ATP) licenses and likely termination by the airline. Pilot inattention – in this case aggravated by the improper use of laptop computers – is a continuing problem in highly automated aircraft.

The proposed revocation of ATP licenses for Captain Timothy Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole was contained in registered letters send 27 October to the two pilots. They were directed to mail in their ATP licenses immediately, but the letters indicated that they have ten days to appeal the decision.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) letters were issued a day after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released the results of some five hours of interviews with the two pilots, who insisted they were not asleep and “lost track of time” as they discussed crew scheduling issues resulting from Northwest’s merger with Delta Air Lines and operated their laptop computers – contrary to company policy – during the course of this discussion.

The airplane was at 37,000 feet, cruising on a flight from San Diego to Minneapolis, when the pilots were engaged in this not-pertinent-to-flying activity. Pilots are forbidden, under the sterile cockpit rule, from engaging in personal conversations below 10,000 feet, but such discussions are permitted at higher altitudes when the workloads associated with departure and landing are less.

The pilots, according to the NTSB, were so engaged in their discussion that they did not hear radio messages sent by air traffic control (ATC) and did not notice messages sent by company dispatchers. The airplane was out of radio contact for some 90 minutes as the airplane flew 150 miles past the Minneapolis destination.

Path of Flight 188, showing abrupt turnaround after it flew past Minneapolis.

Path of Flight 188, showing abrupt turnaround after it flew past Minneapolis.

Neither pilot was aware of the airplane’s position until a flight attendant called on the intercom about five minutes before they were scheduled to land – at which point the airplane, as Northwest Flight 188 with 147 passengers – was already past the airport. The flight attendant asked the captain about the flight’s estimated time of arrival (ETA). The captain said he then looked at his primary flight display for an ETA and realized that the airplane had overflown the destination. ATC was contacted and vectors were provided for the airplane to turn around and land at Minneapolis.

The pilots told the NTSB investigators they were not fatigued, as they had some 19 hours off before the flight. They said there are no procedures for flight attendants to check on pilots during the flight. It should be noted, also, that they were in a locked cockpit – a protocol imposed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – so they were physically isolated from the cabin crew. They were at a period in the flight where sterile cockpit does not apply, and the flight was noneventful to the point that they were using their laptop computers to check on crew scheduling matters raised by the merger.

To say the least, it is ironic that the pilots were engrossed in their personal computers while their airplane, a fly-by-wire Airbus A320, was being flown by the onboard computers, relegating the pilots to a monitoring function as the airplane cruised on autopilot.

The issue of boredom in highly automated airliners has been an ongoing issue. On some modern jet aircraft, the airplane can perform automatically from the point of starting takeoff to ending the landing, leaving pilots with the task of taxiing from the gate at departure to returning to the gate at arrival.

Of course, pilots would be more engaged on their flights if they relied less on the autopilot and did more “hand flying” of the airplane. To what extend this could or should be done is problematic. Suffice to say, the same FAA that now proposes to punish the two Northwest pilots for relying too much on automation while they carried on their scheduling conversation is the same FAA that has endorsed the advances in airplane automation that make such extraneous activity possible. The whole issue of airplane automation, and its consequences for pilot boredom, has been brought into sharp relief by this incident.

Also of issue here is the adequacy of the airplane’s cockpit voice recorder (CVR). A 30-minute device, the CVR was overwritten by the final half-hour, during final approach and while the aircraft was at the gate. There is no recording of the events at altitude, which is why the NTSB has relied on interviews with the pilots. The NTSB has called for 2-hour CVR capability.

It should also be mentioned here that the design of the A320 cockpit facilitates use of laptop computers by the crew. Since the airplane is equipped with side stick controllers, the area immediately in front of the pilot is not taken up by a control yoke. Airbus has fitted the airplane with pull-out shelves immediately in front of the pilots, which just happen to aid in the convenience of using a laptop computer.

The emergency nature of the FAA’s proposed voidance of the two pilots’ licenses bears some comment. Only because the airplane flew past its destination was this incident even brought to light. One suspects that other pilots have engaged in intense cockpit discussions and/or used their laptops. This crew just happened to get distracted long enough to fly past their destination – which brought the whole incident to light. If the crew had terminated their cockpit discussion earlier, nothing amiss would have appeared on even a 2-hour CVR.

There is much to be learned in this incident that transcends flying past the airport. By characterizing its licensing action as an “emergency,” when no one was killed or injured, suggests that the FAA may be endeavoring to illustrate that it is proactively on top of the safety issue – while at the same time it has approved cockpit designs and flight/duty time rules that allowed the crew to have a non-pertinent to flying discussion in the first place.

Below, the letter sent to Captain Cheney (F.O. Cole received virtually the same letter):

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