Flight 60 vs. Flight 188 — The Art of Failure

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Well, those poor sods over at Delta who landed their B767 (with 193 aboard) on (active) taxiway M at ATL after being cleared to land on runway 27R in the pre-dawn of October 19 sure had one thing going for them -- what the pilots at Northwest were about to do on October 21 to trump them. But did they?

I know which event the major news outlets found more egregious, but for my dollar I'll take landing between the blue lights before oversleeping ... or being placed in a sleep-like state by your laptop (whatever). And, frankly, I'm not entirely clear on how the pilots at Northwest managed to so decisively steal Delta's thunder. Is going NORDO at 37,000 feet and flying 144 passengers 150 miles past MSP in an A320 really a bigger deal than planting a 767 on an active taxiway in the dark at the busiest (albeit, sometimes the second busiest) airport in the country? Since when did doing something dangerous fall below being irresponsible? Eh, what do I know... .

I know this much. It sure shut up those pilots at Northwest who were yacking in cyberspace about how you'd never see one of their own make the kind of mistakes the Delta pilots (Delta absorbed Northwest about a year ago) made at ATL. Gotta give it to them. They were right.

Kudos to all. When the spotlight's on -- with Washington focussed on crew rest and training -- the gents at the majors really know how to make the most of it.

There but for The Grace... .

Comments (35)

The most shocking aspect of both of these incidents is the revelation of how many people in aviation in the last two weeks have compared the two and said something like this: "Since when did doing something dangerous fall below being irresponsible?"

How does one spend a career in aviation and still think that being irresponsible isn't being dangerous?

Posted by: BOB COLLINS | November 1, 2009 9:06 PM    Report this comment

Bob: I think Paul's point is that there are very different levels of "dangerous". "Merely irresponsible" is one of the lower ones; landing on a taxiway is (potentially) a lot worse than going NORDO at FL370. I think he's absolutely right on that point.

That said, I think both of these incidents are inexcusable, and I do find it rather curious that the media hasn't made a bigger deal of the taxiway landing.


Posted by: Chris Lawson | November 1, 2009 10:09 PM    Report this comment

Jeez, I never made a mistake in all my years of flying military or general aviation. Well, um, er ah... Never mind.

Posted by: John Willingham | November 2, 2009 4:08 AM    Report this comment

the media -- and I'm one -- didn't make a BIGGER deal because it happened before Northwest did. In fact, on the Monday after the Atlanta incident -- I htink you'll find -- it led most newscasts. But then Northwest happened. If it had been reversed, the attention would've been reversed as well.

And, in fact, a lot of the coverage combined the two in its rush to the substantially premature conclusion that work rules and crew fatigue were behind both.

I'm just glad the NWA plane had plenty of fuel.

Of course, I'm still not buying the conclusion that they were playing on their laptops.

Posted by: BOB COLLINS | November 2, 2009 6:36 AM    Report this comment

Lets not forget the specter of 9/11. An airborne airliner full of people and out of contact...F-16's waiting to go. All of it evokes a visceral response which is more newsworthy. Of course being the attention of the media doesn't mean its a more critical incident.

Posted by: Cameron Fraser | November 2, 2009 7:04 AM    Report this comment

I guess the media hasn't learned how to multi-task yet!

Posted by: Randall Lee | November 2, 2009 7:27 AM    Report this comment

No big surprise. The media will focus on the latest, greatest story that they can hype into public attention. They are dependent on ratings, after all. Conclusion - if you're going to do something stupid, try to time it so that another, equally stupid event happens soon after.

Posted by: Travis Marlatte | November 2, 2009 8:11 AM    Report this comment

Also, I'm thinking that the NORDO aircraft has a much more sensational quality to it than an aircraft landing on a taxi way as far as the uneducated public is concerned. The media seems to always seize the story that can most easily play on the emotions and fears of its audience. It's called "ratings." Also, I must admit I'm still questioning why an F16 wasn't sent up not to shoot but simply to look. Seems prudent to me.

Posted by: Jud Phillips | November 2, 2009 8:54 AM    Report this comment

I don't think the pilots in either case were being irresponsible. Just look around you when you drive a car. Distraction is not irresponsibility. I hate driving in cities because so many are drinking coffee, eating chatting on a cell phone, not signaling intentions or otherwise just wandering around while the tires are attached to the road with a very limited space and many close by objects ready to create havoc.

Posted by: John Willingham | November 2, 2009 9:29 AM    Report this comment

Just to clarify. The F-16 were not "all ready to go" in Minneapolis. Just as with 9/11, there was a lack of coordination between the FAA and air defense command. That was all supposed to have changed after 9/11 and the creation of all the news alphabet departments, And we found out that things really haven't changed. That's the actual story out of the NWA incident.

I get the visceral anti-media thing and I hear it often; usually from those ignorant of the fact that pilots also work in the media. Personally I wouldn't apologize for any of *my* coverage and I also know that none of you have probably read it. Oh, I also did a story on the Atlanta crash.

I was talking to an Oshkosh friend of mine -- he's a Delta pilot and probably the most professional pilot I know -- about this. "We settle those questions before we even think about taking off," he told me.

When it comes to role models, I'll take him anyday.

Posted by: BOB COLLINS | November 2, 2009 9:47 AM    Report this comment

They were about as irresponsible as a surgeon performing the wrong surgery on the wrong person. These pilots are ATP pros and not paid to make stupid mistakes like landing on a taxiway with blue lights vs white (what if another aircraft had been on the taxiway going to the active or terminal?) or flying 75 minutes without communication with anyone! These pilots are long past reading 'flying 101'.

Posted by: Randall Lee | November 2, 2009 9:55 AM    Report this comment

Just to clarify, when I said visceral, it wasn't anti-media. There are all kinds of studies about risk perception on the part of the public and amongst the key factors that cause the public to identify something as being high risk is the ease with which similar incidents are recalled. The inability to contact the airliner, the report of air defence readiness (whether it was or not) will all ring visceral bells with the general public and generate more interest in that story rather than one that is unusual and unfamiliar.

And I know a few pilots in the media and thank goodness they (and you) are there...I hate to think what the reporting might be like with out them.

Posted by: Cameron Fraser | November 2, 2009 11:17 AM    Report this comment

One has to feel sorry for both crews involved,yes mistakes were made. Airlines make great press, but the people on our highways killing people everyday because of mistakes made rarely make news headlines. Would standup overnights have anything to do with these events???

Posted by: Randall Comber | November 2, 2009 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Comparisons with the highways is pathetic. The issue is the potential for disaster. Both incidents put the passengers lives at risk.
We are dealing with professional pilots here and would reasonably expect them to perform at the most basic level.
Sure the press hype things but that does not negate the seriousness of both incidents or their right raise the issues.

Posted by: C Blythe | November 2, 2009 1:02 PM    Report this comment

The taxiway landing danger is overdone- it was VMC, had taxiing aircraft been present, the crew would have likely noticed their mistake.

The NWA crew engaged in deliberate behavior, the taxiway landing was inadvertant. That explains the difference in attention.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 2, 2009 2:09 PM    Report this comment

If a highly trained pilot can't tell the difference between a taxiway and a runway, how can one expect the general media to tell the difference? Much less realize why it's such a big deal.

Falling asleep at the wheel and missing your exit? Everybody can relate to.

Posted by: WILLIAM HEBERT | November 2, 2009 2:38 PM    Report this comment

As pilots and professionals, we should all be striving to learn from the mistakes of others. In both of these cases, the result is a sypmtom of other root causes, such as a lack of discipline, poor crew coordination, lack of situational awareness, etc. We can all be subject to these types of errors if we let our professionalism lapse and let our flying become routine.

Posted by: Bob Lee | November 3, 2009 10:54 AM    Report this comment

regarding Bill Herbert's comment. Switch from helicopter (Land on the parallel taxiway runway 36) to fixed wing the next night (land runway 36). I finally realized that the lights called by ATC were not my guiding lights. Looking at the plate on my kneeboard and getting a "picture" of the airport layout has save me many embarassing moments. Wait 'til ATC turns up the lights on the wrong runway.


Posted by: John Willingham | November 3, 2009 11:59 AM    Report this comment

The sad reality of each of the aftermath of the aforementioned incidents is that our classically uninformed members of Congress are embarking on another crusade to legislate safety in the skies. Those in power will now specifically prohibit the various electronic devices many of us use in everyday life. Is anyone willing to bet that when they craft their prohibitive legislation they forget to consider such essential electronic devices as an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) or other benign convenience devices (electric shaver, digital wristwatch, etc). Don't we already have regulatoru guidance that requires pilots to "pay attention to what you are doing and manage the flight properly"? Seems to me there is a regulation (14 CFR Part 91.13a) which covers it: "No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." How much education do we need here to determine whether something is careless or reckless?? Common sense??

It's like distracted driving. If what you are doing distracts you from the task at hand so much so that you have an incident or accident, then logically the distracted operation rule applies!

Congress has nothing better to do than to create meaningless legislation. You cannot legislate safety !!! Safety is a direct function of EDUCATION and EXPERIENCE!! Common sense also plays a significant role.


Posted by: Gary Readio | November 4, 2009 9:13 AM    Report this comment

We need a goverment takeover of the airlines. That is the only way all mistakes, carelessness and greed can be removed. Pilot ZAR. There should be a politican or at the very least a first year political science student watching over all these crews who work for the private sector.

Think this is nuts....? Just wait....

Posted by: SAM BLUE | November 4, 2009 9:43 AM    Report this comment

I am with you Paul on which error was worse, I would rather be landing (actively flying)on the wrong surface than be totally out of the loop. I thought that there was an light issue on the runway that may have contributed to the error. As for Sam's comment on the Flight Czar, congress is already making new rules for the cockpit and spanking the class from the Bozo stunt of two...ZZZZZZ

Posted by: Chuck West | November 4, 2009 10:42 AM    Report this comment

Paul.. As former Pres Reagon has stated " Here we go again " mouth open before brain engaged....What is really scary is that it makes a person wonder what other " decisions " are being made by reacting before thinking..Doesn't give you a whole lot of confidence does it ?

Posted by: clair M dunlap | November 4, 2009 10:57 AM    Report this comment

With respect and a humorous nod to ourselves, at least 3 of we posters are unintentionally proving the point of being easily distracted - Glenn wrote the blog, not Paul.

Posted by: David Miller | November 4, 2009 12:22 PM    Report this comment

Ah damn, I was on my Palm Pilot twittering, yeah that is the ticket. Thought the style was different, see my Rep or Attorney, can't even hide the evidence...glad I was Solo.

Posted by: Chuck West | November 4, 2009 3:40 PM    Report this comment

Paul....In my message above I forgot to add the important words " members of Congress " Sorry

Posted by: clair M dunlap | November 5, 2009 12:56 AM    Report this comment

A very good point made by Paul.

It's difficult to say which mistake was more serious, but in each case the end result was no harm to anybody. That is, the danger was potential and not realized.

Certainly both crews should be somehow penalized for their errors, but I hope nobody is suggesting sending them to Gitmo?

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | November 7, 2009 9:34 AM    Report this comment

Everyone is careless now and then. Pilots feel safe at FL350. Pilots landing airplanes feel not as safe and are paying a lot more attention generally, and not likely to be looking at laptops on final. Therefore, overflying the destination is an embarassing non event. Landing on a taxiway is stupid, non professional, potentially disastrous, and should be a firing offense. The media and FAA got it wron as usual again.

Posted by: Perry Barinowski | November 23, 2009 2:06 PM    Report this comment

Perry... Is it only embarrassing until the engines quit?

Posted by: clair M dunlap | November 24, 2009 12:47 AM    Report this comment

I am with Clair in respect to the lack of situational awareness of flying 90 minutes in la-la land and cutting into fuel reserves. Landing on a parallel taxiway with no other aircraft in sight, that was a oops, a big one, but he was flying the plane...

Posted by: Chuck West | November 24, 2009 8:15 AM    Report this comment

Mr Dunlap. In my opinion based on my experience, I would say that I have been in conversations with other pilots where we missed a radio call or two and found ourselves digging for a frequency in our momentary lack situational awareness and had to embarrassingly find a controller to talk to. But I have never been so out of it that I lined up on a taxiway. The fact is nobody ran out of gas! But a few minutes later and somebody would have plowed into several aircraft and killed a lot of people. Since I personally know two Beechjet crews who survived double engine flameouts, I maintain that sins at altitude are not generally as venal as those comitted at 300 agl. It's not like flipping on a localizer at Delta's most frequently visited airport might have helped line up on the wide part right? This discussion is all theory because noone died, but the attention is misfocused because if the truth were known Nordo situations happen a lot more than heavy jets landing on taxiways. If they happened with equal frequency which would be of more concern to you? Hence my reasoning about all the hoopla directed at the wrong crew. So the NWA guys lost their licenses, but the DAL guys got suspended. FAA to the rescue!

Posted by: Perry Barinowski | November 24, 2009 8:27 AM    Report this comment

To Chuck and Clair. Clair I am sorry I called you "Mr". Since there was no "e" I assumed and maybe I am in error. To Chuck, it doesn't matter that he was "flying the plane". I was flying the plane once lined up at the wrong airport and I keep thinking is this the right place? I determined that it wasn't and moved on. If he was flying the plane he would have noticed that he was flying the plane to the wrong place and done something about it. The "situation" was flying the plane as surely as the autopilot was flying NWA's. Flying the plane involves more than hands on the wheel. It involves knowing where you are going, planning ahead, checking that you are ready etc. How far behind the curve do you have to be to land on a dark strip bordered by blue lights when you know you are supposed to be on a wide strip with lead in lights, approach lights, centerline lights, green and red runway end lights, VASI lights, and that feeling that you aren't about to land on something as wide as a sidewalk. No excuses. One of my friends was flying the plane on an approach when he decided to dip down for a look and drilled a mountain. Killed two flying that plane.

Posted by: Perry Barinowski | November 24, 2009 8:37 AM    Report this comment

I hear you Perry, but knowing NW carries 2 hours of furel reserve makes one think that a lesson in weight and effiency is in order from a bean counter. Not to mention flying a flight that they have on other occassions and do not notice an overdue check in. I can easily see a traffic alert from ATC totally ignored...in the end both actions were bad and I thought I heard that there was a row of lights were out in Atlanta. I see your opinion, but I feel there are as many accidents from unplanned landings with air in the tanks as CFIT. I guess that is why they make more than just Blue Chevys.

Posted by: Chuck West | November 24, 2009 10:23 PM    Report this comment

I guess my two boiled down thougths would be these. Having landed in ATL many times I am always extra alert about what runway and where when landing because there are so many and the numbers can be easily confused. And on which flight would you rather have been a passenger? For me it's NWA. I think if I had been on the DAL one I would be in jail for assaulting a crewmember, although justifiable considering the danger they would have just put me in.

Posted by: Perry Barinowski | November 26, 2009 7:09 AM    Report this comment

Thank goodness all involved are enjoying Thanksgiving, and one can't help but remember those that perished in the Tenerife runway incursion (1977) and Avianca fuel exhaustion (1990). Incidents like this just enforce the responsibility for the aircraft ends with the PIC and Crew...Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by: Chuck West | November 26, 2009 8:56 AM    Report this comment

A good ending to the tread Chuck West.

Elected officials are not held responsible for their criminal actions, but pilots lose their sole source of income, and that's not fair.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | July 25, 2010 12:31 PM    Report this comment

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