Northwest A320 crew find rostering more interesting than flying

Northwest A320.jpgWho realised flying airliners had become so boring?

It turns out that the two pilots of the Northwest A320 that overflew Minneapolis St Paul were two old lags within sight of retirement who got talking about the age-old subject of the crew rostering system, pulled out their laptops on the flight deck to look at the software, and next thing they know the flight attendant is asking when they’re going to land. They start actually flying the airplane again and realise Minneapolis is a long way behind them.

Captain 53, with 20,000 blameless hours, half of them in the A320 and 7,000 of them in command. First officer 54 with 11,000 similarily clean hours, 5,000 in the A320. What a way to end a career.

They’re spared the full embarrasment of having the whole ghastly saga played back to them because the 30min CVR doesn’t cover the period in question. Although most of the last half-hour is on the tape and may or may not be educational.

Below is the NTSB statement today after interviewing the pilots for five no doubt excruciating hours.

In its continuinginvestigation of an Airbus A320 that

overflew theMinneapolis-St Paul International/Wold-

ChamberlainAirport (MSP), the National Transportation

Safety Board hasdeveloped the following factual

information: On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, at 5:56 pm

mountain daylighttime, an Airbus A320, operating as

NorthwestAirlines (NWA) flight 188, became a NORDO (no

radiocommunications) flight at 37,000 feet. The flight was

operating as aPart 121 flight from San Diego International

Airport, SanDiego, California (SAN) to MSP with 144

passengers, 2pilots and 3 flight attendants.


Both pilots wereinterviewed separately by NTSB

investigatorsyesterday in Minnesota. The following is an

overview of theinterviews:


*     Thefirst officer and the captain were interviewed for

over 5 hourscombined.

*     TheCaptain, 53 years old, was hired in 1985.  His

total flight timeis about 20,000 hours, about 10,000

hours of A-320time of which about 7,000 was as pilot

in command.

*     TheFirst Officer, 54 years old, was hired in 1997. 

His total flighttime is about 11,000 hours, and has

about 5,000 hourson the A-320.

*     Bothpilots said they had never had an accident,

incident orviolation.

*     Neitherpilot reported any ongoing medical conditions.

*     Bothpilots stated that they were not fatigued.   They

were bothcommuters, but they had a 19-hour layover in

San Diego justprior to the incident flight. Both said

they did not fallasleep or doze during the flight.

*     Bothsaid there was no heated argument.

*     Bothstated there was a distraction in the cockpit.

The pilots saidthere was a concentrated period of

discussion wherethey did not monitor the airplane or

calls from ATCeven though both stated they heard

conversation onthe radio. Also, neither pilot noticed

messages thatwere sent by company dispatchers.  They

were discussingthe new monthly crew flight scheduling

system that wasnow in place as a result of the

merger. Thediscussion began at cruise altitude.

*     Bothsaid they lost track of time.

*     Eachpilot accessed and used his personal laptop

computer whilethey discussed the airline crew flight

schedulingprocedure. The first officer, who was more

familiar with theprocedure was providing instruction

to thecaptain.  The use of personal computers on the

flight deck isprohibited by company policy.

*     Neitherpilot was aware of the airplane’s position

until a flightattendant called about 5 minutes before

they werescheduled to land and asked what was their

estimated time ofarrival (ETA).  The captain said, at

that point, helooked at his primary flight display

for an ETA andrealized that they had passed MSP. They

made contact withATC and were given vectors back to


*     Atcruise altitude – the pilots stated they were using

cockpit speakersto listen to radio communications,

not theirheadsets.

*     Whenasked by ATC what the problem was, they replied

“justcockpit distraction” and “dealing with company


*     Both pilots said there are no procedures for the

flight attendantsto check on the pilots during



The Safety Boardis interviewing the flight attendants and

other companypersonnel today.  Air traffic control

communicationshave been obtained and are being analyzed.

Preliminary datafrom the cockpit voice recorder (CVR)

revealed thefollowing:


*     TheCVR recording was 1/2 hour in length.

*     Thecockpit area microphone channel was not working

during thisrecording.  However, the crew’s headset

microphonesrecorded their conversations.

*     TheCVR recording began during final approach, and

continued whilethe aircraft was at the gate.

*     Duringthe hours immediately following the incident

flight, routineaircraft maintenance provided power to

the CVR for a fewminutes on several occasions, likely

recording overseveral minutes of the flight.


The FDR capturedthe entire flight which contained several

hundred aircraftparameters including the portion of flight

where there wasno radio communication from the flight

crew. Investigators are examining the recorded parameters

to see if anyinformation regarding crew activity during the

portion of flightwhere radio contact was lost can be



The SafetyBoard’s investigation continues.

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4 Responses to Northwest A320 crew find rostering more interesting than flying

  1. layman October 28, 2009 at 11:41 am #

    Is the root of the problem not the fact that Airbus has gone for side-sticks which practically invites pilots to whip out a laptop or two and use them. Having a yoke taking up space in front of you dissuades you from using a laptop.

    I agree with your sentiments about two clean old-hands- what a way to end it all.

  2. Ray November 1, 2009 at 12:09 pm #

    The history is repeated…

    Remember the Northwest DC10 starting its descent to Brussels instead of Frankfurt back in the eighties ?

    My experience :33 years of flying, up to Captain on the B747-400 , including 13 in the US where cockpit distraction is common because of poor discipline, relatively easy environemnet, same language, same culture and rather light indoctrination from companies… Money……has shown that compared to the rest of the world where the environement is less friendly, multicultures in a cockpit , languages barriers ( different problems now ) and less social protection for employees, is conducive to better ( Not always though ) discipline compared to the US…

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