October 27, 2009

Pilots and their laptops.

Shhh. Don't interrupt me.
The pilots ignored repeated attempts to contact them by air-traffic controllers, including efforts that set off chimes in the cockpit, until a flight attendant finally got through on the intercom somewhere over Wisconsin.
Well, at least these guys have the capacity to concentrate and screen out distractions. If they would just commit to flying the plane, it would be great.

52 comments:

MrBuddwing said...

Not that I know anything about flying planes, but I've heard that today's jetliners are so automated, the pilots often feel as though they're little more than passengers themselves. It's lovely to think that airline pilots can (and should) concentrate on their flying the way they do on their flight schedules, but apparently, there isn't that much to pay attention to (until something goes seriously wrong).

MadisonMan said...

Those online games can be so addicting, you really can lose track of time.

Peter V. Bella said...

Ah, the wonderful world of multi-tasking. What next, virtual pilots?

Marcia said...

I was sure it was going to be discovered that the pilots had been on an episode or two of Wife Swap.

AllenS said...

"We were playing with our computers." Patooey. They were playing with the flight attendants.

Pogo said...

Geez, I never knew Titus was a pilot.

Original Mike said...

The pilots ignored repeated attempts to contact them by air-traffic controllers, including efforts that set off chimes in the cockpit

This is too hard to believe.

They fell asleep.

Or, something was recorded on the 30-minute voice recorder loop that was so bad, they prefered to take the grief for 30 minutes of silence.

traditionalguy said...

This is not a good time to become unemployed. Delta is unlikely to keep these pilots any longer than it takes to process the paperwork.

Paul Zrimsek said...

NTSB investigators were baffled when the pilots, Freder Frederson and Jeremy Jeremyson, claimed they were "caught in a vortex".

AllenS said...

It's Bush's fault!

peter hoh said...

Allen, if the flight attendants had access to the flight deck, this would have never happened.

Both pilots are fired. Whether they have technically been fired yet, they aren't going to be flying for Northwest or Delta anytime soon.

Fallows argues that being awake but distracted is far more damning (and far more unlikely) than falling asleep.

Der Hahn said...

Original Mike said...

They fell asleep.


Let's put this, ahem, to bed once and for all.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, citing an internal Northwest document it said was described to the newspaper, reported that Cheney and Cole began what was to be a five-day flying stint Tuesday with a flight from Minneapolis to San Diego. The newspaper said the pair had a 19-hour layover before Wednesday's return flight.

The pilot's union jumped all over this trying to steer the discussion to pilot workload. It's ironic that the real explaination probably is they had so little to do they could goof off on their laptops the whole flight.

I find the explaination that they were engrossed in computer use much more believable than thinking that both of them would fall asleep at the same time. I've been a computer programmer/system engineer for over twenty years. Even for an experience user, it's often hard to estimate how much wall clock time a particular computer function is going to take. The easiest thing in the world to think "I'm going to sopt when this is done. It'll only take a minute to finish", and then looking up to realize that you thought that fifteen minutes ago.

Bissage said...

They were probably playing Microsoft's "Flight Simulator X."

Florida said...

I've been waiting for you to post on this topic, Ann.

I was curious whether you'd mention the real story:

An aircraft went radio silent for an hour and 18 minutes and deviated significantly from its flight plan, taking it on a course towards Washington, D.C.

Leaving your flight plan is almost unheard of in modern aviation, and yet the Obama Administration never launched one fighter jet to check on this aircraft.

At no time did the Obama-led military attempt to intercept this wayward aircraft to determine whether or not the pilots had their throats cut or whether terrorists might be actually flying the missile.

It is amazing to me that the Federal Aviation Administration still is not following a protocol for when an aircraft has deviated from its flight plan and the pilots are unresponsive.

It is obvious that the lessons of 9-11 were not learned by this crowd.

We will come to regret it when (not if) terrorists take control of aircraft in the future.

traditionalguy said...

Is it true that they were commenting on Althouse as trolls made bitter by jet lag?

Mark O said...

Two pilots. One "flight attendant." Locked door. No response when the locked out flight attendants banged on the door.

What behavior is reasonably consistent with those facts?

Think of it as a practice exam.

Tibore said...

MrBuddwing is right. I've read that there's a joke among modern jetliner pilots: The newest cockpits have room for a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the man if he tries to touch anything.

--

Let's recall that, when pilots set the autopilot, a jet can actually land itself too. Mythbusters demonstrated this in their "Can a nonpilot be 'talked down' over the radio" episode.

--

One last thing: Some articles (mostly opinion pieces) out there actually suspect that the pilots fell asleep. MSNBC actually got a retired pilot to admit the possibility on the record. On the other hand, as that same pilot pointed out, that distance at the speed jetliners travel at amounted to 15 minutes of inattention. No, that's not acceptible by any stretch, but it does indicate the magnitude of the transgression. A 15 minute borkup could easily happen without anyone necessarily falling asleep.

Tibore said...

Oh, another thing:

"... but apparently, there isn't that much to pay attention to (until something goes seriously wrong)."

Not to criticise MrBuddwing - I see and mostly agree with what he's getting at - but in the grand scheme of things, that's accidentally and unintentionally selling pilots a little short. From what I understand, they're supposed to manage the flight in such a manner that avoids things going seriously wrong by anticipating potential problems and planning around them well ahead of time. But from where I sit, his overall point does ring true: As long as nothing actually does go wrong, it seems as though pilots are partially passengers. The electronics do so much. Once again, I point at the Mythbusters episode I mentioned; amateurs having to manually land the jet if the pilots are incapacitated are total myths given todays level of automation.

But yes, when something does hit the fan, pilots earn their pay and then some. Do I even need to mention last January's Hudson River emergency landing as an example of this?

Original Mike said...

I'm not finding it hard to believe that the pilots could be distracted by whatever. What I do find hard to believe is that they were not brought to attention when their plane was called over the radio. The brain is hardwired to respond to that kind of stimulus.

Florida said...

"A 15-minute borkup could easily happen without anyone necessarily falling asleep."

It wasn't 15 minutes.

The pilots were unresponsive for one hour and 18 minutes. Their aircraft flew 150 past the airport ... but flew for many more miles off its pre-filed flight plan. They would typically be descending 100 or more miles prior to their planned arrival airport.

Most people are unfamiliar with what occurs during a "radio silent" event. The airline, in addition to air traffic controllers, tries frantically to contact the pilots using both the radio and other specialized backup equipment that is independent of the ground communications system.

It would be highly implausible for conscious pilots not to notice these attempts to contact them. It would be difficult for them to ignore such attempts unless they were involved in a physical alteration or were asleep (don't laugh, both events have happened before).

These pilots are most likely covering up something and even if they were not asleep, neither of these pilots should ever be allowed to fly again.

Their careers should be over.

Jim Howard said...

There was recent incident in Hawaii where an airliner overflew its destination because the crew was asleep. In the recent Buffalo airliner crash crew rest was found to be a contributing factor.

As others have pointed out, this Northwest/Delta crew had a 19 hour layover prior to the flight, so if they were asleep it wasn't because of inadequate crew rest.

Northwest famously did not fire two pilots who reported to work drunk, I think there is a good chance that the first officer, and possibly the Captain, will return to duty in the future.

Certainly these two are the least likely crew in the world to miss a radio call again.

Years ago when I was a student navigator in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom I almost died when I got into a long winded conversation with my pilot during an instrument approach. We descended well below the safe altitude and almost landed in Tampa bay before we realized what had happened. This was before 'sterile cockpits' became the rule during takeoff and landing.

Even with that experience I just can't get my head around an airline crew going radio silent for an hour and overflying their destination at high altitude by 150 miles. It boggles the mind!

Original Mike said...

They would typically be descending 100 or more miles prior to their planned arrival airport.

Florida's right. This incident began well before the plane flew over the airport.

Fred4Pres said...

Captain Sully weeps.

MadisonMan said...

An aircraft went radio silent for an hour and 18 minutes and deviated significantly from its flight plan, taking it on a course towards Washington, D.C.

This is a nonsense statement. They flew into Northern Wisconsin. They were on course for Boston, perhaps, if my great circle computations are correct.

Florida said...

"... it seems as though pilots are partially passengers. ... Amateurs having to manually land the jet if the pilots are incapacitated are total myths given today's level of automation."

These assertions are quite exaggerated.

All the Mythbusters episode attempted to demonstrate is that with the right equipment, an aircraft could theoretically land itself.

And while that is true ... the key point is "with the right equipment." Most aircraft in use today do not possess the advanced avionics necessary to perform such a automatic landing; and even if they did almost no airport has the equipment required.

There are both aircraft-based and ground-based equipment requirements to perform a Category III ILS autoland.

Those airports that do have the equipment typically have it on only a single runway (which might be closed or not in use because of crosswinds).

Pilots are never "passengers." They have extensive duties that require their full attention for the duration of their flight; from systems monitoring, to radio frequency changes, ground communications, weather checks, in-flight flight planning, cabin crew supervision, etc.

Only the most unprofessional of pilots could ever find themselves in this situation.

These two should be permanently removed from the cockpit.

Florida said...

"They flew into Northern Wisconsin. They were on course for Boston, perhaps ..."

They were headed easterly. Washington D.C was southeasterly of their position.

But of course only now do we know that terrorists were not in control of the aircraft and flying it towards Washington.

At the time, the FAA did not know where that aircraft was headed and couldn't raise the pilots. And yet they failed to notify NORAD.

Total fucking incompetence.

The aircraft could easily have been headed towards Washington or New York (or, as you say, Boston).

Original Mike said...

The aircraft could easily have been headed towards Washington or New York (or, as you say, Boston).

I'm guessing it would not have had enough fuel to make it that far.

Kylos said...

Sure, laptops can be distracting, but I find it hard to believe that they could distract them enough to miss repeated calls and chimes in the cockpit – unless they were watching inappropriate material on their laptops.

chuck b. said...

I always say thank you to the pilots if they're standing in line when I exit the plane. Is that too much to say? They're not really doing anything?

MayBee said...

Perhaps they were using earphones? A little iTunes maybe?

edutcher said...

Peter V. Bella said...

Ah, the wonderful world of multi-tasking. What next, virtual pilots?

Don't laugh. In the Air force and Navy, we are seeing the last generation of manned aircraft. 20 to 30 years from now, they will be UAVs.

How far behind that will be civilian airliners?

PatCA said...

Hmmm, wonder what sites they were visiting. Hope it was something decent, like Althouse!

Tibore said...

"It wasn't 15 minutes.

The pilots were unresponsive for one hour and 18 minutes."


Fair enough. I missed that. I was going by retired pilot Joe Mazzone's information in the linked MSNBC article. I hadn't realized that they were NORDO for quite some time before that.

Note, too, that I agree this event is unacceptable.

"At the time, the FAA did not know where that aircraft was headed and couldn't raise the pilots. And yet they failed to notify NORAD."

This is a little shocking, and something I didn't know. For everyone else: From what I've read, the chain of notification plus the triggering events for the local air traffic control centers to notify NORAD were dramatically reduced in the aftermath of September 11th (the pre-9/11 procedures were identified to be onerous, and indeed openly problematic for responding to hijackings/terrorist incidents. Yes, this current issue was none of those, but when an aircraft is radio silent AND fails to land at its destination, all probabilities must be accounted for). While I understand that communications failures are actually somewhat irritatingly common, I'm not sure any prior cases extend to a whole hour of radio silence, plus no response from any other system (for example, a transponder "squawk" to a "radio out" or emergency code). The questions that I don't know the answer to are: What are the criteria for the FAA to implement the intercept procedure and notify NORAD? And did this case meet them? You'd think that a whole hour-plus of radio silence in addition to overflying an airport would trigger that level of response, but I honestly don't know what the full protocols are nowadays; I've only read bits and pieces of them. From what I've read, as a practical practice, ATCs won't necessarily consider a jet flying "No Radio" (NO RDO, i.e NORDO) as anything other than a simple communications failure unless some other indication of severe problem is present; for example September 11th taught us that a jet flying radio silence and with the transponder shut off is cause for serious alarm (not like it was blown off previously - it wasn't - but currently I believe it's an open hijack indicator). If I understand things correctly, that situation is cause enough to get an intercept going. The obvious question is, is failure to respond and land at its destination also cause for at least notification? Nowadays, I'd hope so. But I honestly don't know. I read one pilot's opinion that "Fighters were not launched because the aircraft was not a threat to anything significant. Well, unless you consider a cheese processing plant in Eau Claire or a dairy farm to be a significant target!", but I don't have the knowledge or authority to disagree with him. I'd hope that NORDO plus failure to land would constitute a response. But well... what do I know? I'm no pilot. I'll confess to being disappointed if such a combination of factors doesn't even warrant a notification, let alone an actual launch, but I'm talking as a layman here. Maybe the industry has reasons to not react to that specific combination of events.

Or perhaps this was indeed incompetence, as Florida said. That would be the most disappointing scenario of them all. Having a situation where all the criteria were met and having a good procedure in place, but failing to follow it would be utterly inexcusable.

Yes, Florida has pointed out something that previously hasn't seemed to garner any attention: There might be a bigger problem than just the pilots not responding. If anyone here works in the industry, I'd appreciate reading what your thoughts are, whether you agree or disagree that the ground response is cause for concern, and why. What little I know comes from studying September 11th, and that knowledge is far from being total.

former law student said...

"At the time, the FAA did not know where that aircraft was headed and couldn't raise the pilots. And yet they failed to notify NORAD."

That contradicts an AP story, which reads:

The FAA had notified the military, which was ready to scramble as many as four Air National Guard fighter jets, but none took to the air.



http://www.katu.com/news/national/65771287.html

Did this used to happen before locked cockpits were mandated?

Florida said...

"That contradicts an AP story, which reads: "The FAA had notified the military, which was ready to scramble as many as four Air National Guard fighter jets, but none took to the air."

This is the AP covering up for the Obama Administration's incompentence by failing to do journalism.

Yes, it is true that the FAA eventually notified NORAD, but not in enough time for the military to intercept the jet. No jets got off the ground and they would have been hours away. Much too far away to do much good if terrorists were set on crashing the aircraft into a populated area.

Let's recap the chain of events:

* The plane went radio silent for over an hour.

* It then deviated from its flight plan about 100 miles before reaching its destination.

* FAA air traffic controllers were frantically trying to reach the pilots. Frantic attempts were being made.

* It then overflew its destination at 37,000 feet on a course that could easily have taken it on to Washington, DC or other large cities. Highly unusual.

Only then did the FAA think maybe they should notify NORAD.

That is fucking incompetent.

NORAD needs maximum lead time to intercept an aircraft. The FAA knows this; and has procedures in place (classified) that dictate a protocol.

It does no good to notify NORAD hours later. Eventually notifying NORAD is pointless.

The FAA deviated from the protocol, and in doing so reminds us that the the government appears to be is in the very best of hands.

Tibore said...

"On the ground, concerned officials alerted National Guard jets to prepare to chase the airliner from two locations, though none of the military planes left the runway."
Link.

Huh. From what little I'm finding in a 10 second Googlewhack, the Air National Guard was alerted, but I can't tell from that single story whether that was a formal notification from the FAA through their military liasons to NORAD. And while I acknowledge that ultimately the important thing is getting things done, not slavishly following procedure, there's still room for concern: If proper procedure were not followed, I'd be happy that someone took initiative anyway, but alarmed that it was bypassed. Why? Well, you'd have to know the events surrounding the September 11th flight that hit the Pentagon - American Airlines Flight 77 - to understand the systemic concern. When FL77 was hijacked and turned, the hijackers turned off the transponder. And then immediately disappeared into an area where "primary" (i.e. "active"... although I think the military calls this "secondary"; I'll have to confirm later) radar coverage did not exist. The radar coverage in that area only detected jetliners with active transponders, and FL77's was not on. This led to the Indianapolis Air Traffic Control center to think the plane crashed, since they lost them on radar and time was lost while they investigated that possibility. They conducted a search along the path that FL77 was supposed to have been going, and of course would not have thought to alert ATCs along the path it ultimately did take. So during that whole time, no one thought to interact with East Coast ATCs, nor with the FAA because they thought it was a crash. And information about FL77 could have been critical in alerting people that 9/11 was underway. At the very least, it might have been enough to alert the Pentagon, had ATC's had time to construct what's happening and ID FL77 out of hundreds of blips in the air.

When Indianapolis Center did hear of the east coast hijackings, they immediately reassessed, and got their information regarding FL77 into the game. So they eventually got it together. But the point is, valuable time was lost because pre-9/11 procedures did not require such a level of communication or coordination. On top of that, information about FL77 was garbled and only guesswork to begin with, so it contributed to an information overload on the East Coast, one where there wasn't only a ton of incoming info, but plenty of inaccuracies in it. For the record, until the events were straightened out, the air traffic control system as a whole were afraid that up to 11 flights were hijacked and were sorting all those reports out. Accurate knowledge about what happened to FL77 could have helped alleviate some of that confusion, and if some minor miracles happened, might have allowed for the evacuation of the Pentagon.

Might. That's presuming much, I admit. Even I concede that the chances are large that people would've still been in that building when FL77 hit, even with more prior warning. But the point is, we don't know, and having accurate knowledge from the get go is never a bad thing.

So that brings me back to this current event: Was the military formally notified? Or was this another case like, early in 9/11, where a Boston Center liason jumped the procedure and contacted people directly to get fighters into the air? Like I said, on the one hand, personal initiative is a good thing, but on the other, if the procedure is good, bypassing it can lead to unintended consequences. And if the procedure is bad, it needs to be changed. Regardless, any of those points center on whether the notification was formal or ad hoc, and that would be an issue that I feel warrants some level of investigation. September 11th taught us just how fast things go to pot when miscommunications rule.

Tibore said...

Oh. Florida replied while I was composing. Florida: Do you happen to know whether or not the NORAD notification was formal, or if the ANG were simply notified directly? And if so, you happen to have any links (if this is personal knowledge, of course I understand that you won't). I don't know what you're level of knowledge of this event is, but you can see in my previous posts why I'm interested, and why I feel that this is an important question.

Florida said...

"Do you happen to know whether or not the NORAD notification was formal, or if the ANG were simply notified directly?"

I've seen AP reports indicating both. The AP is a horrible journalism outfit.

Most of my information is coming to me directly from the NTSB (I'm on their mailing list). However, the NTSB is primarily focusing its investigation on what occurred in the cockpit. They may eventually get around to the FAA's lack of proper notification, but they may also feel that is outside the scope of their mandate.

I hope the NTSB does eventually focus on the FAA's lack of notification to NORAD, but the media is too focused on the pilots.

The pilots aren't the problem. They can be dealt with. They can be fired.

The real problem goes much higher. The real problem is the fact that the FAA let another plane roam around in our airspace, unable to contact the pilots, without notifying the proper authorities.

FAA heads should roll.

Cedarford said...

Mark O said...
Two pilots. One "flight attendant." Locked door. No response when the locked out flight attendants banged on the door.
What behavior is reasonably consistent with those facts?
Think of it as a practice exam


Classic post.

Anyone who believes the laptop story is of the crowd that believed the Heene Family on day 2 of their hoax.

====================

Florida raises some good 9/12/01 points. But this isn't 9/12/01 anymore.

Locked cabin doors. Neither pilot Islamoid. Contact with other flight attendents saying the plane wasn't hijacked. I'll leave it to NTSB and other investigators to determine if protocols required more action with NORAD involved than they did. My guess is they didn't.

rhhardin said...

Most likely one pilot got a little shut-eye with the other one covering, which is illegal but winked at; and then the other guy fell asleep.

Tibore said...

"Contact with other flight attendents saying the plane wasn't hijacked."

This happened in flight? I know that the attendants were interviewed after the fact, but I had no idea they were queried while in flight. Is there a source for this? I'm not finding one.

------

Off topic: Word verification - blenc. Lazy, slurred pronounciation of the french word for "white" :D . "C'est un chateau blenc..."

Original Mike said...

Is there a source for this?

You need more than Cedarford's say so?

Florida said...

Breaking: FAA revokes licenses of both pilots.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33497462/ns/us_news-life/

They'll try to get them back (and might succeed), but this is a start at improving airline safety.

peter hoh said...

On one of the local morning radio shows, I heard the lead investigative reporter for one of the local TV stations. He's got contacts high up in Northwest Airlines. He's certain that the pilots are going to be fired.

Northwest -- the old Northwest -- may have rehabbed a couple of pilots who were previously suspended for drinking. Northwest is in the process of shifting over to Delta. Delta isn't going to want the publicity from this story to transfer to their brand.

reader_iam said...

I'm seeing a news alert that the FAA has revoked the two pilots' licenses.

reader_iam said...

Ah! Now I see that Florida and Peter are the specific "conflicting edits" to which Blogger was referring when I originally tried to post my just-previous comment.

peter hoh said...

One other thing from the morning show -- Al Franken was making noise about needing a law to ban laptops in the cockpit.

Knee-jerk crap like this pisses me off.

I understand the need to look like one is "doing something," but (a) such discussions would be more appropriate after the facts are in and (b) what he should be doing is talking to some pilots, ATC, etc. You know, people who actually know the difference between their ass and a vertical stabilizer.

peter hoh said...

Original Mike speculated: Or, something was recorded on the 30-minute voice recorder loop that was so bad, they prefered to take the grief for 30 minutes of silence.

I'll speculate back. I suspect that the voice recorder is only played after an accident. Anything they said would have been erased anyway, unless they had an accident/incident that warranted playing the tape.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Playing World of Warcraft. Probably raiding Uldar.

Time flies.

Gary Rosen said...

Original Mike is right - a close relative of mine is an airline pilot and thinks they fell asleep, then tried to make up something they thought would get them the least punishment (didn't work, FAA took away their licenses).

C-fudd the perv of course thinks they were having sex. Naturally he fantasizes about something he has never experienced.

Florida said...

Finally, someone does some actual journalism on this incident.

"The Federal Aviation Administration violated its own rules by taking more than 40 minutes to alert the military after losing communication with a Northwest Airlines flight last week, according to officials familiar with internal reviews under way at several federal agencies."

Air traffic controllers are so poorly trained by the FAA that they apparently don’t even know when or how to contact the military if militant hijackers take control of an airliner with plans to crash it into a skyscraper:

“Local controllers apparently became so focused on trying to re-establish contact that they failed to alert higher-level FAA managers about the problem in a timely manner. "We are conducting an internal review," Mr. Babbitt said, "and will require retraining on proper notification procedures when we lose radio contact with aircraft."

WGP said...

http://china-arsenal.blogspot.com/