Archive for Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pilot error

October 29, 2009


Chesley B. Sullenberger these guys were not. Whatever Sullenberger’s heroic landing in the Hudson River last January did to bolster the confidence of the flying public, the recent actions of two Northwest Airlines pilots probably erased.

The two were out of radio contact for an hour and a half while flying 150 miles past their intended destination in Minneapolis last week. The first speculation was that both pilots had fallen asleep. They vehemently deny that charge but said they were so engrossed in looking at scheduling information on their laptops that they sort of forgot they were flying a plane with 144 passengers on board.

There really isn’t that much difference. Whether they were asleep or mesmerized by their computer screens, they created a potentially deadly situation for their own passengers and crew as well as any other plane traveling in the same airspace.

On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it had revoked the licenses of the two Northwest pilots. They can appeal the decision, but, if the laptops are the best excuse they can offer, it probably is — and should be — a waste of time. If an appeal fails, they can apply for new licenses after a year.

One passenger on the Northwest flight told the Associated Press that revoking the pilots’ licenses “seems a little severe.” “But,” he added, “at the same time, I think they should not be flying airplanes at least for a while so they have an opportunity to think about this.”

On the contrary, pulling the licenses seems completely appropriate. Even being willing to consider reinstating them after a year is generous.

The passenger is right, however, that the pilots, and everyone in the airline industry should “have an opportunity to think about this.” The vast majority of commercial pilots probably take their duties very seriously, but they all can use a reminder of the important responsibilities of their job. According to the FAA, the Northwest pilots were without any communication with an air traffic control facility or their company dispatcher for 91 minutes. Other pilots were trying to contact them. National Guard jets were put on alert to go after the airliner. The reaction was only natural in a post-9/11 world.

The focus of this case is on the pilots, but Northwest and every other U.S. airline also should be thinking about this case. There has been considerable news lately about pilot fatigue. Do new restrictions or backup procedures need to be put in place?

To everyone’s relief, this incident ended well, but the principle of “no harm, no foul,” doesn’t apply. Despite the fact these pilots were able to safely deliver their passengers to their destination with only a minor delay, this situation opened up multiple scenarios that could have ended in disaster. The financially troubled U.S. airline industry can’t afford this kind of publicity, let alone a tragic event linked to pilots who are sleeping, looking at computers or otherwise distracted from flying their plane.


Mark Zwahl 8 years, 5 months ago

"On the contrary, pulling the licenses seems completely appropriate. Even being willing to consider reinstating them after a year is generous."

Really? Frankly, if these guys would tell the truth, I'd trust them MORE as pilots, not less. MIstakes are an opportunity to learn. I'm wondering if the LJW just fires people who screw up, or use it as an opportunity to teach, mentor and support their fellow citizen.

We're always so quick as a culture to condemn those who make public mistakes. Not taking into account all those mistakes we make in our lives, for which we either don't get caught or the consequences are fortunately not serious. If they suspend these guys, it won't be for the pilots or the passengers' safety. It will be for the bureaucracy's reputation...

Glenda Susie Breese 8 years, 5 months ago

With over 144 lives in their hands,it some how does"nt seem very harsh!

puddleglum 8 years, 5 months ago

oh c'mon! people fall asleep while flying planes all the time. what's the big deal?

labmonkey 8 years, 5 months ago

I agree with sowhatnow. One year is harsh....and if they own up to their mistake, I would trust them more.

Not only pilots should think about this, but everyone who drives.... no cellphones, no texting etc. People who cause wrecks because of stupid distractions get less penalities than these guys.

Bob Burton 8 years, 5 months ago

Here again the LJW shows there lack of information on commercial airplanes.. WILL THEY EVER LEARN???

Thats_messed_up 8 years, 5 months ago

Why can't we apply this "one strike and your done forever" to all of our politicians??? There wouldn't be many left in the Obama administration if we could.

tbaker 8 years, 5 months ago

"Potentially deadly situation?" Well, if the plane had been empty, then I suppose they could have endangered their own lives if these two idiots had been so engrossed in conversation they didn't notice the "loaded" F-16's that were minutes away from being right off their wings.

As it is this plane had lots of people on it and lots of windows for the people to watch Minneapolis go right on by, and an intercom for the flight attendants to tell the two morons to shut up and land the plane already.

Yanking their license is totally appropriate. They should make them pay a hefty fine, and be sent back to the minor leagues (small, propeller planes the rookies fly) I'm not defending these dopes, but I gotta say today's cockpit environment is so automated boredom really is a big issue. Pilots don't really fly the plane much anymore, they manage the plane's technology.

Orwell 8 years, 5 months ago

Just another example of Big Government interfering with the free market. The way I see it, if these guys had killed their planeload of people all those people would be free to choose a different airline next time.

kansanbygrace 8 years, 5 months ago

They missed their turnoff. Not good form.

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