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October 23rd, 2009
09:13 AM ET

Pilots could face 'serious discipline' for silence

Air safety investigators are studying voice and flight data recorders to find out whether the crew of Northwest Airlines Flight 188 was asleep at the controls. Air traffic controllers could not contact the flight crew for more than an hour yesterday, triggering fears of a possible hijacking.

Peter Goelz, former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board, says the pilots are facing a serious disciplinary situation. He spoke to John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Friday. Below is an edited transcript of that the interview.

John Roberts: Peter, I know there are a lot of details yet to come out about this. What's your initial reaction to what happened? What are you thinking here?

Peter Goelz: Well, this is really disturbing. The pilots are saying they were engaged in a heated discussion, and that that distracted them. And there are indications, also, that the NTSB is going to look at whether these guys were simply asleep. But in any case, they certainly were not doing their jobs.

Roberts: They were, as the FAA says and air traffic controllers said, NORDO – which means no radio contact – between 7:56 p.m. and 9:14 p.m ET. Even if it was a heated discussion, but they were awake and alert in the cockpit, is it possible that they could have missed the notifications that air traffic controllers were trying to get to them on the radio, text messages, other aircraft trying to contact them?

Goelz: It's highly unlikely, because unless they simply switched their radios to a different channel, there really is no explanation that's acceptable about how they missed these calls. They should have been well into that 120-minute period ... preparing to land at Minneapolis and going through procedures, being in contact with air traffic control. It's unacceptable that they were silent for that long.

Roberts: How dangerous is it for a plane to be flying with both pilots asleep? I’m not saying that happened in this case, but if that were the case, how dangerous is that situation?

Goelz: Well, it's extraordinarily dangerous. You have the plane itself is most likely on auto pilot. Today's modern aircraft are perfectly capable for flying for hours on end without any human manipulation. But the idea that the front of the cockpit is asleep, not monitoring other air traffic, not monitoring what went on, is really quite frightening. The NTSB will go back, listen to the voice recorder. It's most likely a two-hour voice recorder, it could be a 30-minute voice recorder, see what they see there. The NTSB will look at the flight data recorder to see if there was any monitoring, any manipulation of the controls during that period.

So air traffic control was trying to get in touch with this plane, concerned it might have been hijacked. They even had jet fighters in Madison, Wisconsin on hot stand-by to scramble in case they determined if it presented some sort of danger to the public. Even if they weren't asleep, even if they were just distracted, how much trouble are they in?

I think they're facing a real serious disciplinary situation. You cannot have these kinds of events on your record and keep flying at the same level that you were. I think unless there's some reasonable explanation, and it's hard to imagine what that might be, I think they're in very serious difficulty.

Filed under: Airline safety
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Deborah Lehan

    Where was the rest of the crew?
    I do not recall hearing anything about their role during that hour and 18 minutes.

    October 26, 2009 at 8:33 am |
  2. Jetdriver295

    It is impossible for an aircrew to fly past its destination. The airplane will not allow it. All modern airliners are flow from takeoff to landing via the FMS/FMC (autopilot). Crews are responsible for uploading the route into the FMS/FMC (autopilot) prior to starting the engines. The computer is smart enough to not allow input errors by the pilots.
    Besides the autopilot is in full control of the flight and the crew are just system monitors

    The FMC/FMS would not allow the airplane to fly past its destination. The route is programmed from departure airport to destination airport.
    The auto pilot should have flown the airplane to the exact point to where the plane went off course. This is due to autopilot diengagement.

    The real problems here are as follow:

    Economy-Pilots are pretty smart people. Many have other sources of revenue and outside business opportunities. Because of this many have lost money in retirement, real estate investments, and pay. Many are struggling with the same problems that all Americans are facing.
    The difference, many pilots go to work as other Americans, thinking about their personal problems, exception is pilots have offices at 40,000 feet. As professionals, pilots are trained to separate themselves from their personal problems prior to entering the cockpit. Easier said than done.

    Aviation industry's adversarial relationship with the FAA.

    FAA failure to commit to regulations which support the operational changes in the aviation industry. This can be contributed to budget reductions and the failures within the FAA culture.

    With the Delta Airlines merger with Northwest Airlines, the bottom line was cutting cost. This included cuts to training. Delta employs a very different operational philosophy for its flight crews. As a result, all NWA flight crews are undergoining extensive changes to their operational procedures. This is the way the company ensures safe operations of its aircraft. Cost cuts in flightcrew training and extensive change in operational philosophy, spells disaster for the flying public

    Lets not leave the pilots unions out of this conversation. The continuous fight between the pilots unions (ALPA/APA), breed unsafe operations in the aviation industry. The rift between union and management in the airline union is nothing new. The fights over jobs, wages, seniority, and benefits, endanger the lives of each passenger.
    These "so called" intense discussions have no place in the cockpit. The ramifications of such conversations are obvious.

    As a former NWA flight Instructor, I feel that the industry needs to pay more attention to how external factors outside of the aviation industry, effect the situational awareness and judgement of pilots.

    October 26, 2009 at 8:24 am |
  3. Jen

    April ^ that is very possible.......also very dumb if in fact true. I personally think they were asleep. My hubby is a pilot for a major airline and believes they were asleep.

    October 26, 2009 at 7:09 am |
  4. elma remando

    that is so scary, where were the stewardesses, weren't they wondering what was happening , i think all pilots need to be checked each time before they take a flight out, they need to be checked for alcohol , and drigs also, look at all the train crashes due to the negligence , of them people some of them were smoking pot others were texting still others were drinking, we live in a very scary world and we put our trust in these people who are driving and flying people every day. it's about time we start checking these people out . that's just the kind of world we live in now. i hope and pray this gets dealt with very quickly and all the other accidents to but most of them drivers are all dead along with many others to no fault of there own, we put ourselves at there mercy every time we fly or even drive our car, because there are so many crazies out there on there cell phones. or drinking and driving or high on drugs. put a stop to this , we need to do something now.

    October 25, 2009 at 6:13 am |
  5. April

    Has anyone checked into the possibility that they were doing this out of rebellion because of the merger? Or their union told them to? I am just wondering. It just seems so crazy that proffessionals like this would do something so dumb. The whole flight crew was probably involved. Where were the flight attendants? Let me guess reading magazines in the last row clueless.

    October 24, 2009 at 6:12 am |
  6. themoi

    And people wonder why I'm taking flying lessons. I can't trust commercial flights or their pilots anymore, then there's the hassle of boarding. I haven't flown commercially in over 20 years for good reason. I'm on my 4th instructor because the first 3 were lousy, and if these commercial pilots had instructors anything like my first 3–no way I'm flying commercial!!!!

    October 23, 2009 at 12:28 pm |