What happened on Northwest Airlines Flight 188
1:40 PM Fri, Nov 27, 2009 | Aviation Blog
We have two interesting items Friday about the Northwest Airlines flight last month that alarmed people after it didn't have radio contact for more than an hour, and it overflew Minneapolis-St. Paul.
We have the Associated Press story that talks about the Federal Aviation Administration transcript of the conversations between air traffic controllers and the pilots on the flight. Click here to go to the FAA transcripts and listen to a recording of the air traffic controllers.
And more interesting, we have what purports to be a thrice-forwarded email from a friend of Capt. Tim Cheney who discusses what happened on the flight.
According to the friend, Cheney said that the session with the laptops lasted no more than five minutes as the first officer was showing Cheney how to build a schedule that could get Cheney some desired days off in December.
What went wrong on the flight? According to this account, when Denver handed the flight off to the Minneapolis-St. Paul air traffic control, the first officer accidently tuned into the wrong frequency -- for Winnepeg, Canada, not MSP.
Secondly, the first officer didn't brief the captain on the frequency change when the captain returned from a visit to the restroom.
The flight also had a tailwind of 100 knots, or about 115 miles per hour, which meant they got there faster.
For both items, keep reading.
First, the Associated Press story:
FAA transcripts show efforts to reach Flight 188
FAA transcripts show controllers trying to reach Northwest flight that overflew Minneapolis
By Joshua Freed, AP Airlines Writer
On 12:20 pm EST, Friday November 27, 2009
Air traffic controllers asked the Northwest Airlines pilots who overflew Minneapolis repeatedly about what had happened on the plane, according to transcripts released Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Oct. 21 flight had been out of contact for 77 minutes before controllers re-established contact. the pilots told them right away that they had been distracted, but didn't give details.
After almost 90 seconds of conversation about the route they should take to Minneapolis, the controllers said, "I just have to verify that the cockpit is secure."
"It is secure, we got distracted," one of the pilots responded. The transcript says the pilot then said that they never heard a call from the ground.
A different controller took over and, after five more minutes of directions about routes and altitudes, asked, "Do you have time to give a brief explanation on what happened?"
"Cockpit distractions that's all I can say," was the response from Northwest Flight 188.
About 12 minutes after contact had been re-established, the same controller asked, "is there any way you can elaborate on the distraction?"
The pilot said that they were dealing with some company issues, and "that's all all I can tell you right now at this time," according to the transcript.
Air traffic controllers ultimately had the pilots perform several turns to verify that they were in control of the plane. It landed safely in Minneapolis, and was met at the gate by police.
The transcripts also show controllers checking that the flight had enough fuel. The pilot responded that they had about two hours' worth of fuel on board and that it wasn't a concern.
The pilots have told the National Transportation Safety Board that they were discussing their company's complicated new crew-scheduling program over their laptop computers as their plane flew past Minneapolis by 150 miles. Northwest was bought by Delta Air Lines Inc. last year and the company has been working to integrate its computer systems.
And the email from the friend:
I had a one hour conversation with Tim Cheney yesterday and would like to shed some light on what happened to cause the over flight of their destination, MSP.
Before I begin with details, I wanted to say right up front that although there are many events that helped to cause this, Tim takes full responsibility and places no blame on anyone but himself. He is very humbled by what has happened and fully understands that as captain, he was responsible for the a/c, crew and passengers. That said, he wanted me to know how it all happened. Secondly, he has the full support of his neighbors in Gig Harbor, WA, as well has his church parishioners. One of his neighbors wrote a letter to the Star & Tribune in Minneapolis saying how great a family the Cheney's were, I agree.
On their flight from San Diego to Minneapolis, after passing Denver, the f/a called the cockpit to let them know Tim's crew meal was ready. Tim was the "flying pilot" on this leg, so he told his F/O that when the f/a brings the meal up, he will step back to use the restroom. When Tim returned, the F/A left the cockpit and he began to eat his crew meal. When a pilot leaves to use the restroom, it is customary for the other pilot to brief him on his return on "any changes", such as altitude, heading, course changes or atc center frequency changes, etc. In this instance, nothing was said....even though the f/o had received a frequency change. The problem that occurred was that the f/o never got a response on the new frequency....it was not the correct frequency....it was a Winnipeg Canada Center Freq.
Now, Denver Center is trying to get a hold of them because they never checked in, because the f/o had dialed in the wrong freq......that is who called them so many times....but, then there was a shift change at Denver Center and no one briefed the new controller that there was a NORDO A/C (non communications) in their airspace....so, in actuality, atc basically "lost" this a/c.....see Wall Street Journal article below.
Tim told me he heard atc chatter on the speaker and so never thought they were out of radio range.....but, of course, they were hearing pilots talk on Winnipeg Center. For non-pilots.....when we don't hear anything for a long while...we ask atc if they are still there....sometimes they are and sometimes you are out of their area and need to find a new frequency. With this chatter going on, there was no concern that they were not being controlled.
Then Tim told the f/o that the new bidding system was horrible and that his November schedule was not what he hoped for. He mentioned that his son was going into the Army in Dec. and he wanted certain days off so he could see him off.....the f/o said he could help him, he knew more about the new bidding system. Tim got his lap top out and put it on his left leg and showed the f/o how he bid. He told me he had his lap top out for maybe 2 minutes. Then the f/o said that he would show him how to do it on his laptop. He had his laptop out maximum of 5 minutes.
Let's also add the 100 kt tail wind that they had to the discussion, not helping matters.
The f/a's called the cockpit on the interphone(no they did not kick the door, no, no one was sleeping, no, no one was fighting) and asked when they will get there. They looked at their nav screens and were directly over MSP. Because they had their screens set on the max, 320 kt setting, when the f/o called on the frequency, which of course was Winnipeg Center, he saw Eau Claire and Duluth on his screen. They asked where they were and the f/o told them over Eau Claire, which was not even close, but MSP had disappeared from the screen even though they were right over the city.
They were, as you all know, vectored all over the sky to determine if they had control of the a/c and Tim kept telling the f/o to tell them they have control they want to land at MSP, etc. They landed with 11,000 pounds of fuel (no they did not come in on fumes, but had 2 hours in an A320) and not but 15 minutes past schedule, even though they left San Diego 35 minutes late due to an atc flow restriction.
In the jet-way awaiting them were FBI and every other authority you can imagine.
Aftermath and tidbits:
Although these pilots filed an NASAP Report, which was designed to have pilots tell the truth about events, so the FAA could learn from them, they had their licenses revoked by the ATL F.A.A. even before they came out of their meeting with NTSB and NASAP meetings.
ATL FAA is really big on this new regulation which will allow pilots to take a short nap in flight so they will be rested for the approach...they were insistent that they were sleeping.
MSP FAA, Vance (do not know last name) was the person who handed Tim his revocation letter(which was leaked to the entire world by the ATL FAA). Tim said Vance had tears in his eyes and walked away, said nothing. It was later learned that the entire MSP FAA office did not agree at all with revoking their pilot's licenses, but had no jurisdiction over the matter, since ATL FAA had control because of Delta.
The pilots have been to Wash. D.C., ATL and MSP for several meetings. In ATL, they met with the chief pilots and Tim said they could not have been nicer. They are working to resolve this, not to try and fire them. But of course, they will have to get their license back for Delta to consider allowing them to continue flying. The appeal has been files for the FAA to reinstate their licenses or to settle on some form of punishment, etc.
When Tim and his wife were in MSP for a meeting with the NTSB, they happen to be staying at the same hotel as the NTSB was. The next morning in the lobby, the NTSB official came over to Tim and said he did not know why they even called them in for this event. There was no safety issue. Also, MSP Center informed Delta that there never was a problem and no aircraft were near their plane. Even though no radio communications, they had been followed and separated.
Yes, the company tried to contact them on ACARS, but the 320 does not have a chime...it has a 30 second light which then extinguishes.
Tim always has 121.5 tuned, but as we all know as pilots, it can get very noisy at times and we turn it down and sometimes forget to turn it back on. He told me this may have been the case.
So there were so many factors which helped to cause this episode. Anyone would have likely prevented it.....properly checking in on the new frequency would have been the first one.....
A note about laptops.....in NWA's A.O.M (I think it stands for airman's operation manual), it does not say we can't use a laptop, however in Delta's A.O.M., it does, we are transitioning now and we actually have pages from both airlines. When our union showed this to the attorney's, they could not believe the confusion put on our pilot group. But, D.C. F.A.A. put out a new possible ruling which will disallow all laptops......so stupid, don't they know Jet Blue has laptops on every aircraft and soon all airliners will for the electronic Jepp charts.
These are the facts and again, Tim said he feels very bad for the company and the pilots and is hoping for a positive outcome on their appeal. With 24 years at NWA, 21,000 blemish free hours, it would be a mistake to ruin his career over this in my opinion.