Arguing? You’re Kidding, Right?
Sometime later today or early next week, we should learn of the results of what has to be the biggest slam dunk investigation in the history of aviation: Whether the crew of Northwest Flight 188—which sailed 150 miles past its destination Wednesday night-- was snoozing or “discussing airline policy.” Either way, both of these guys are in a pile of trouble.
In some ways, I hope the CVR reveals a chorus of snoring rather than the discussion the crew says they were having. Falling asleep I can understand, but losing the bubble because you’re talking to your crewmate? Please. The last thing the industry needs is smearing the piloting profession with that kind of incompetence, in my view. We’ve all missed the occasional radio call or flubbed a descent clearance, but 78 minutes worth of no comm as the destination airport scrolls off the moving map is a bit much. I’m having a hard time seeing why these guys—or at least the skipper—shouldn’t be permanently beached. I’m just able to maintain a sliver of open mindedness to see what the investigation reveals. I can’t come up with anything that mitigates this poor performance.
But there’s a positive aspect to this and that’s this: Whether they were sleeping or not, the incident focuses attention on something the pilot unions have hammering for years—crew fatigue and flight and duty times. Regulations exist to address this, but these are widely seen as inadequate, especially at the regional level, where fatigue has been cited in accidents and incidents. Fatigue keeps coming up and the FAA continues to resist a meaningful regulatory solution. It may take another smoking hole for the agency to take this seriously.
You can easily see how a crew snooze could turn fatal. If fuel is a little tight due to winds and weather and the crew is checking their eyelids for light leaks, running the airplane dry is a real possibility. The flying public should expect better than that. We can only hope that it doesn’t require the locomotive solution, where the operator has to press an idiot button every two minutes or the train comes to a halt. A few more of these incidents, and it could come to that.
FRIDAY P.M. UPDATE: Northwest and the FAA revealed Friday that the A320 was equipped with an older CVR that retains only 30 minutes of data, not the two hours newer recorders store. That means the initial loss of comm and, likely, the cockpit discussion won't be on the recording.