Flight 188 NORDO: Admirable Restraint

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As the Northwest Flight 188 saga continues to unfold in standard leak-it-to-the-media fashion, we were treated over the weekend with the convincing denial by the First Officer that neither he nor the Captain were sleeping. I say "convincing" because he looked sincere to me. He offered no other details, nor would I expect him to. He'll have his hands full with the investigation board this week. I'm willing to take his word for it.

Meanwhile, one other bit of information emerged that I found interesting, if it's true. The Wisconsin Air National Guard was evidently placed on alert to scramble an intercept flight but someone made the decision not to do that. This suggests a couple of possibilities. Either the Guard couldn't pull it together fast enough to get the fighters airborne, it actually did get them airborne and we're not being told that or, indeed, restraint was exercised. If the latter, hats off to whomever or however that decision was made. It's tempting to overreact in a situation like this and it wouldn't have been an overreaction to have intercepted the airplane for a closer look. Deciding not to do that strikes me as a slightly righter decision.

I've seen a couple of remarks in other blogs and forums ridiculing the notion of launching fighters in the first place, as though the Guard is trigger happy to splash an airliner. This attitude ignores the just-barely-beneath-the-surface trauma of the 9/11 attacks, which began with exactly the same NORDO situation. It would be downright stupid not think about that in this context. It also raises this question: Would fighters ever be justified in shooting down an airliner known to be hijacked? To answer that, take yourself back eight years and imagine you were in the cockpit of the F-15 sent to find United Flight 94 or you had to make the decision to authorize deadly force. What would you do?

This is by no means an easy decision to make and I don't envy the people having to make it. But conceptually, my answer is that in the right circumstances, deadly force is appropriate. The trick is knowing what those circumstances are and last Wednesday night, someone did know.

Comments (29)

I don't see how launching fighters would have been an overreaction at all. Send 'em up, have 'em investigate firsthand. If the guys are sleeping, that'll be obvious. If they're *not* sleeping, they'll certainly wonder why there's an F-16 50 feet away, and that's pretty hard to miss at that range. Remember, that's pretty much exactly what the Greek Air Force did when that 737 lost pressurization a few years ago.


Posted by: Chris Lawson | October 25, 2009 8:50 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Chris -- a passenger jet that is incommunicado for so long deserves to be investigated up close. The best aircraft to carry out that interception and investigation is probably a fighter. The mere act of sending the fighter does not imply that anyone intended to shoot down anyone.

Posted by: C Lechte | October 26, 2009 3:48 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I agree that making the decision to shoot is an extremely difficult one. And admittedly, sending armed fighters to intercept increases the risk that someone will intentionally or unintentionally fire a missile before getting authorization. But the other side of that, if we are going to hark back to 9-11, is that on 9-11 the National Guard did send fighters (from Otis, I believe) that did not get to the hijacked aircraft in time. It would seem to be a better decision to get a fighter or two up there to eyeball the situation and be on-site in case the situation turned ugly.

The other way to look at it is to invert the situation -- suppose it had been a real hijacking and the fighters (again) didn't get there in time. Wouldn't the decision-makers now be taking flak for not getting a fighter up sooner?

And finally, as someone else pointed out, those same faceless decision-makers seem quite willing to scramble fighters immediately for a Cessna at the outer perimeter of a TFR, but wait an hour to do the same for an A320 that goes NORDO. Am I the only one who thinks that doesn't compute?

Posted by: Jonathan Spencer | October 26, 2009 8:21 AM    Report this comment

No Jonathon, you're not!
Was Minneapolis that unimportant that it didn't deserve confirmation that whatever caused the NORDO situation wasn't a danger? Would the same scenario happened if the Airbus was headed toward say,Washington? I would hope not.
Or is this situation so common (as stated by the FO) that it was situation normal?

Posted by: David Ahlberg | October 26, 2009 12:12 PM    Report this comment

Don't shoot - repeat, do not shoot - an airliner full of innocent bystanders. this whole question, and the manner in which it is being addressed by the responders seems to be a part of the frantic overreation of this entire nation, if not the world, to the 9-11 incident. Everybody please back up and get a little perspective here. HOW MANY terrorist incidents resulting in thousands of casualties, with an airplane (large or small) as the weapon has there been in the last hundred years? Count 'em (upraised index finger) one. We have had police agencies in place to deal with such criminal activities since this nation began, and we should have got out of the way and let them do so without this frantic overreation, including the establishment of a multi-billion dollar agency whose purpose was the indefencible violence they do every day to literally millions of americans' constitutional rights, without doing anything identifiable to actually increase anybody's security. Even if they had, unconstitutional is unconstitutional. I have waited nine years for someone to take that to the courts, and nobody has. Oh, yes, overflying the destination 150 or so miles. Somebody obviously screwed up, but it may not have been all the pilots. Just find out what it was and fix it.

Posted by: john Wood | October 26, 2009 2:41 PM    Report this comment

John, I don't think any of the commenters here are advocating that NWA188 should have been shot at. I think they're all in agreement that the military was remiss in not launching an intercept aircraft to investigate the situation further. However...

The latest information suggests that the FAA may not have conveyed the NORDO situation to the military until the aircraft had been out of communication for nearly an hour, so by the time fighters were ready to go, communication had already been re-established. THAT worries me; the FAA needs to have better communication with the military (or figure out a faster way to re-establish communications with NORDO aircraft) so that *if* terrorists do manage to take over an airplane with the intent of repeating 9/11, their window for succeeding is very very small, say, 20 minutes or so at most. For an aircraft to go an hour without any sort of response or indication that it intends to follow standard lost-comms procedures and only THEN does the FAA worry enough to contact authorities, well, that's frankly unacceptable.


Posted by: Chris Lawson | October 26, 2009 3:17 PM    Report this comment

The jerking of leg hinges is no help. Quite the reverse in hindsight. If a plane full of people is at the mercy of gravity for any reason, including force, those abored will have a very bad arrival. The visual contact, however, of a plane at flight levels makes a compeling case for safety. What could be done in a case of hypoxia? Dunno. As for the crew of 188, they are victems of inattention and focus. Remember Korean 007? Same thing. In the days of steem gauges and hand flying, boredoom was always a player too. It may be time to insert tasks which confirm crew focus. I have, for years, held that naps be required on long flights. A fresh crew is a more effective crew. Now for this crew? They need to have along talk with Sully about responsibility and aviating. Personal commitment to this craft has been eroding as the prestige and pride in it has waned. Anyone can drive a bus but we all trust that a Bus Driver is a real professional.

Posted by: Larry Fries | October 26, 2009 5:28 PM    Report this comment

If the latest defense I just heard that the two pilots were working on their laptops, oblivious to everything else, is true, then I submit that even Professional Pilots have now joined the Madness of the Now with many others in society. The movie Seven Pounds, the graphic psa from Britian on driving and texting, my wife's whiplash from JeepsterGuy rearending her while texting, and the campground cellphone user at the Grand Canyon last week loudly declaring 'it's so quiet in this campground!'to her distant ear are a few examples of our growing inability to do what we are doing here and now, this moment.

It's always been good enough for me. But a Madness is sweeping over many people to pull them away from here and now, and it appears now even flying an airliner isn't satisfying enough for some. Who knows where this is headed.

Posted by: David Miller | October 26, 2009 8:56 PM    Report this comment

Once again, I agree fully with Paul. Furthermore, I'll take issue with Chris's position. Recall what happened on 9/11/01 on flight 94 - once the passengers became situationally aware. That's right, they stormed the cockpit. In that particular instance, the action was meritorious.

Now fast forward to last week. The passengers apparently were all blissfully unaware that the cockpit was NORDO and nobody was flying. Now add an F-16 armed to the teeth, flying just off one wingtip, with a pilot staring intently at the airliner. Given just how ignorant the flying public is, just what would prevent them from reacting by again storming the cockpit in a blaze of wanton hysteria? I think the restraint helped save the day last week.

If we all feel the need to "do something", perhaps all we need is to add a way for ATC to contact the flight attendants, independently from the flight crew. Perhaps this could be as simple as utilizing existing air-phones.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | October 27, 2009 2:04 PM    Report this comment

By not scrambling the fighters to get the situation back on track I submit that everyone in the airplane was in serious danger. How much fuel did they have left when they landed? I'll bet not 15 minutes.

Posted by: Stuart Baxter | October 27, 2009 6:08 PM    Report this comment

my century 11 autopilot in my mooney circles the designated waypoint if i choose to fly past it. don't the airlines routinely use autopilots? why didn't that happen in this instance? surely they weren't handflying the airbus..and who has flown for an hour in their life without a call from atc? very strange!

Posted by: larry fox | October 27, 2009 6:43 PM    Report this comment

Regarding Chris' comments to launch: Someone on the flight deck has to have eyeballs outside and head on swivel to detect escorting fighters. From all the reports I've seen/read, it appears both were heads down.

Posted by: John Willingham | October 28, 2009 2:02 AM    Report this comment

What you do in a situation like that is give them the 'hot nose'. That being come up from blow to in front of them and light off the afterburner. That will get their heads up.

Posted by: Stuart Baxter | October 28, 2009 8:05 AM    Report this comment

I agree with the hotnose option or at least overfly the airliner with some safety buffer clearance and light the afterburners on the F-16. That would definitely get the distracted pilots' attention prompting them to go to 121.5 to talk to the fighters. There has to be some restraint until all other options are not working.

Posted by: Doug Ackeberg | October 28, 2009 9:54 AM    Report this comment

In this days and times of intercepting any GA aircraft that wanders into some airspace an intercept should have been in order. I feel pretty confident the military was reviewing options. That area's Air Guard did a great job at handling the suicide C-172 from Canada a few months ago. As for Flight 188, a flare bouncing off the windshield might of gotten the crews attention since they apparently weren't monitoring guard (121.5). The only issue I have with the current approach to securuty is TSA expansion into GA and Presidential TFR's. TSA is now finding some Congressman wanting reason for additional restrictions (good thing) and it is time to review the Presidential TFR parameters cutting into aviation's ability to may a living in affected areas...afterall it hasn't effected part 121 ops and they were the aircraft involved on 911.

Posted by: Chuck West | October 28, 2009 10:58 AM    Report this comment

Maybe ABs firing up nearby would have gotten some attention. Having flown some intercepts over the years, there's not much that can be garnered from a look at the offending aircraft. It would have been the most difficult decision of my life to have armed and fired after only a look.

Posted by: John Willingham | October 28, 2009 10:18 PM    Report this comment

I don't think anyone was suggesting shooting at them. Some of us think that safety would have been served by just getting them to pay attention.

Posted by: Stuart Baxter | October 29, 2009 4:06 AM    Report this comment

Proper restraint by the government in this case would have meant not shooting until an unresponsive a/c started an out of place descent or pointed at some apparent target on the ground. This case demonstrates negligence in the extreme. Only the outcome tends to hide that fact. If this had been a bad guy driven plane there would be FAA/NW hides hanging in some deer camp in MN to dry on this day.

Posted by: Michael Mahoney | October 29, 2009 8:46 AM    Report this comment

Ditto Michael M - once the intentions of a bad-guy-driven plane are known, and it includes the plane being used as in 9/11, then the people are already dead and by all means shoot (preferably over an area that would incur the least damage)(I think even John Wood would agree at this point of the scenario). Granted, there's always the chance the people could eventually regain control of the plane, so they're not really dead until the plane hits. But ever since the 9/11 PA flight, I think those people considered themselves dead, which is what made it easier to challenge the terrorists.

I'm thinking the lack of 911 distress calls might also have played a part in not sending up the planes. If there were bad guys, they could have used some knock-out gas, making it harder for any calls to be made, or, they could have told everyone to not use their phones or they'll start shooting or cutting people up, and maybe tried collecting them, but I think there still would have been at least one brave soul succeeding in getting a call made.

Posted by: David Homan | October 29, 2009 10:29 AM    Report this comment

David, good point about the distress calls. I have always wondered how the authorities would find out with enough certainty that a plane is taken over by terrorists. One would need a lot of evidence before a command to shoot down can be given, and there may be very little time in which to gather said evidence.

And even then, shooting down a plane could cause a lot of death and damage on the ground, so you might be saving the original target of the attack at the cost of killing people who would otherwise have been unharmed. These kinds of decisions are very hard to make and defend.

For these reasons, I think that in practice, it is very unlikely that the shooting down of a hijacked plane ever needs to be seriously considered.

Posted by: C Lechte | October 29, 2009 12:04 PM    Report this comment

Can you imagine the fear instilled in whatever remains of public air transportation following a shoot down? They'd be more afraid of the air forces, than the remote possibility of terrorist hijackers (the flying public). The option needs to remain available to splash an airliner, but all the other options listed here (and others unthought of) are the only ones I see as reasonable. Continued security vigilance will hopefully obviate the need for shooting down airliners. The future of public air transportation depends on it!

Posted by: eric hanson | October 30, 2009 4:12 AM    Report this comment


Are you suggesting that we in general aviation (by exclusion, who are not representative of the flying public) are more afraid of terrorist hijackings on our own aircraft than we are of the Air Force?

Maybe I'm a little unusual, but I am far more afraid of an Air Force encounter than of terrorists hijacking my GA airplane, even if the USAF hasn't yet actually shot anyone down (and I'm really not sure exactly how I would know for sure if they haven't anyway, given the US government's disturbing apparent ability to cover-up all sorts of misconduct.) Since 9/11/01 have there not been 1000's of potentially deadly intercepts, but exactly zero terrorist hijackings on GA aircraft?

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | October 30, 2009 10:55 PM    Report this comment

Bruce, I thought I was clear that the general flying public might consider the threat of getting shot down (in the aftermath of a hypothetical "shoot down"), as frightening as the equally rare event of another terrorist attack similar to 9/11. I was not refering to us general aviation participants (well..pilots). In fact I really was NOT addressing GA at all. Simply talking about what would happen to our fantastic air-transport system (most passengers of which fly scheduled airlines). With all respect, I don't know how you read GA, specifically, into any of my comment? Also; how do you define "deadly intercepts"? That is quite leading, and I'm not even a lawyer! It is a wonder how/why the air forces get into the air for a C-172 but not a non-compliant airliner, however! I am guessing that is where your real emphasis is intended, Bruce?

Posted by: eric hanson | October 30, 2009 11:12 PM    Report this comment


I guess I'm suggesting that one does not have to belong to the "flying public" in order to be very afraid when an Air Force interception occurs, and that the fact that our government does not yet admit to any fatalities as a result of the many intercepts is not a logical reason to fear them any less.

Whenever excessive force is involved (and having an enormously powerful fighter armed to the teeth and aiming its weapons at you is certainly excessive, if you are in an unarmed aircraft) fear is going to be a very negative factor in how rationally people respond. If, at gunpoint, a pilot has a fright-induced heart attack, or panic attack, and crashes, will she or he be any less dead just because the fighter pilot never fired anything more than flares? Yes, until everyone is back on the ground safely, every intercept has the significant potential for a deadly outcome.

Yes, the Air Force seems to like to scramble far more often for small relatively harmless GA aircraft than for demonstrated weapons of mass destruction like big airliners. The evidence suggests to me that intercepts are almost entirely about intimidating the general populace and almost never about protecting anyone from terrorism. The whole practice strikes me as clearly unconstitutional anyway. Perhaps I am just more easily intimidated. I don't know.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | October 31, 2009 4:05 PM    Report this comment

I'm thinking that, the most frightng mission for a military person is a confrontation with a "friendly". How many might refuse to shoot? I know I would! 9/11, not withstanding, there is always a possibility of lives on the ground would be saved. There may be a loss in the air but that aluminum tube might still strike anywhere. So what's to gain with a missle strike? The Pentagon and the Twin Towers were horific but those airliners crasing into any part of a city would have been just as bad. The whole concept of a "shoot-down" really sucks. An unarmed intercept makes more sense to me.

Posted by: Larry Fries | October 31, 2009 7:26 PM    Report this comment

Sorry, should read; "crashing upon"....LF

Posted by: Larry Fries | October 31, 2009 7:31 PM    Report this comment

Paul, C-130 vs. AH-1. Hmm, not even the corridor!

Posted by: Larry Fries | October 31, 2009 7:40 PM    Report this comment

I had the rare opportunity to witness an intercept of the infamous Sundowner about 1500 below me in TX during a pop-up Prez TFR. The conversation went, "Cherokee 123AB you have traffic at 10'o'clock, what is it?" "It appears to be Beechcraft product, a Sundowner or Sierra." "Okay be advised there is a F-16 underneath you, maintain 3000." The Viper driver did a heck of a job wedged between two GA aircraft flying close to his stall speed and made for a squirmy pilot and I felt sorry for the other guy being herded.

Posted by: Chuck West | October 31, 2009 8:23 PM    Report this comment

No one knew why they went NRDO
No one knew remaining fuel
Go up and take a look !

Posted by: Dan Secord, M.D. | October 31, 2009 10:02 PM    Report this comment

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