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.
Roberts: 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?
Goelz: 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.