Video: What happened?

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    >>> first, a mystery in the skies. one of those two piles of a northwest airlines jet missed their destination. why couldn't anyone get a hold of them for ant an hour? nbc's kevin tibbles has the latest.

    >> reporter: any investigate into what went on in the cockpit of northwest flight 188 may be hampered by this older model cockpit voice recorder which only records 30 minutes at a time and likely missed the critical moments. one of the pilots in the cockpit, richard cole , denies speculation the crew had fallen asleep.

    >> nobody was asleep in the cockpit. no arguments took place.

    >> reporter: the airbus a-320 departed san diego late, heading east, following it cross-country flight path . but instead of landing in minneapolis , it flew right past it, 150 miles past it, eventually performing a sky-high u-turn at 37,000 feet over eau claire , wisconsin, and headed back to the minneapolis /st. paul airport.

    >> cleared to land.

    >> cleared to land. the runway 35. going to gate 14.

    >> reporter: passenger brett borland was in row 17 and kept looking out the window.

    >> why are we still way above the clouds? we can't see any city lights , any ground lights.

    >> reporter: controllers say the pilots stopped responding about an hour before flight 188 was supposed to land, calls that were becoming increasingly anxious.

    >> so there was a high level of anxiety, definitely. there were 13 separate attempts by different air-traffic controllers to try to establish communications with northwest 188.

    >> reporter: sources say armed air national guard fighter jets were on the runway and ready to scramble if needed.

    >> you just start thinking about the little things that could have happened. you run out of gas. you know, do i look out the window, see an f-14 flying next to me?

    >> reporter: once contact was finally established, controllers asked the crew three separate times if everything was okay. at first the pilots responded, we were distracted, then later added they were discussing a company issue. but before landing, the pilots were put through a series of maneuvers in the air to prove to controllers they had command of the aircraft.

    >> reporter: whatever the reason, experts say it's cause for alarm.

    >> i think flabbergasted is even a better word, that you could have a situation where not only do they fly over the airport but, you know, the fact that they fly 150 miles. that's a pretty big miss.

    >> reporter: the ntsb says it will interview the two northwest pilots to find out just what happened on flight 188. for "today," kevin tibbles, nbc news, chicago.

    >>> a former air safety investigator with the national transportation safety board , greg, good morning. it's good to see you.

    >> good morning, lester .

    >> we're talking about whether they were asleep, whether they were arguing, whether it was a distraction. did any explanation make any sense or is reasonable?

    >> i think right now we don't have all of the facts. there's been a lot of speculation about the crew sleeping, because people can't really understand how you could be so distracted and miss an airport by 150 miles. but i think that the ntsb , when they interview the crew tomorrow, are going to be able to ferret a lot of this information out and give us some hard answers, probably the beginning of the week.

    >> greg, every time i get on an airplane, the first time i hear from the cockpit, our flying time today is 2:28, whatever it is. clearly if nothing else, they should be looking at their watch and know it's about time to be making an approach. isn't that a reasonable asummings?

    >> oh, absolutely, lester . you know, one of the things the ntsb is going to have to look at in lieu of the fact they don't have a valid cvr -- the information was overwritten because of the 30-minute cvr --

    >> cockpit voice recorder .

    >> i'm sorry. yes. the cockpit voice recorder . so there probably is still some good information because the crew is still most likely going to be talking about the event, so they can capture some information there. but the crew should have been looking a time, monitoring their flight progress, not necessarily looking out the window but looking at their flight instruments to see what points they'd hit along their route and prepare for the arrival into minneapolis .

    >> i know one of the things you have noted is northwest airline 's pilots about how piles monitor air traffic control . what is it you're specifically keying on?

    >> one of the things is that the airlines allow pilots to take off their headset. normally they'll be wearing a headset or an earpiece like i have right now, listening to air traffic control . they'll be responding to them. but at cruise altitude, you know, there is a policy they can take off their headset, turn on the overhead speaker in the cockpit itself. you've been in cockpits. you know there's a lot of ambient noise . there's the air noise, the fan noise for the avionics and then they're talking. so if they don't have the speaker up loud and their ear isn't tuned to their specific flight number , there's a high probability, this is the human factors issues that the ntsb will have to develop, but those are the kinds of thing where is a pilot can become distracted and miss the call sign for that particular flight.

    >> i want to talk about the sleep issue. anybody who's been on a long night flight has to wonder what's it like in the cockpit. the plane is largely automated. do these guys nod off? is this opening up a hidden secret in the industry that it's not uncommon to rest your eyes or lean your head back?

    >> great question, lester , and the thing is fatigue has been an issue in aviation incidents and accidents for about 30-plus years. we started looking at it in a hard way with a lot of the accidents. we had american 1420 back in 1999 with crew fatigue issue, guam, boeing 747 . the issue has been around. it's been addressed. it's been studied. mark rosekind from nasa studied it. there's a lot of data. it's now time to really grab this issue and put some, you know, real meat to review the rules or regulations so that these crews are getting the rest. and i don't think that's the case.

    >> bottom line, before i let you go, do you think they'll get to the bottom of this particular case?

    >> oh, absolutely, lester . i think that through the interview process -- and there's other recording meth thotsods on the airplane so, there is other data they can use to validate the crew, if they were actually asleep or not. but the crew has a lot to lose if they don't tell the truth. it's their careers. so i think they're going to fess up, they're going to talk about what they were talking about and provide the board with a lot of the issues that cause them a great deal of distraction to miss minneapolis .

    >> i think the public deserves answers as well. greg feith thanks for joining us. appreciate it.

    >> you're welcome.

    >>> the centers for disease control

updated 10/24/2009 11:28:31 PM ET 2009-10-25T03:28:31

There was concern at the White House about that wayward Northwest Airlines jet that flew past its scheduled destination in Minneapolis.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told The Associated Press on Saturday that senior White House officials were alerted by the White House Situation Room and they closely monitored the incident.

Shapiro didn't say if President Barack Obama was informed about the wayward plane.

Northwest Flight 118 was out of communications with air traffic controllers for over an hour Wednesday night. The plane carrying 144 passengers and five crew members was destined for Minneapolis but overflew the airport by about 150 miles before controllers were able to re-establish contact.

'Nobody feel asleep'
The Northwest pilots insist a clandestine snooze isn't to blame for their goof at 37,000 feet. "Nobody fell asleep in the cockpit," first officer Richard I. Cole said.

Aviation safety experts and fellow pilots don't buy it, arguing the most likely explanation for missing more than an hour of radio, cell phone and data messages is a drowsy flight crew. The prospect alone could renew focus on pilot fatigue and research that suggests controlled catnaps might actually make flying safer.

"If you really need a nap, you're far better off taking a nap than ignoring your body and being tired during takeoff and landing," said Kit Darby, a pilot who said he took the occasional mid-flight nap during his 30-year career at several major airlines.

"It was not uncommon to do that. If you needed to take a nap, you took a nap," Darby said. "As a captain, I would encourage it."

Charles Lindbergh famously fell asleep while crossing the Atlantic, and despite strict federal rules against it, experienced airline pilots say it's not uncommon to sneak a nap inside the cockpit.

FAA bans naps on U.S. airlines
International carriers including Air France, British Airways and Qantas allow pilots to nap, but sleeping while flying is prohibited at U.S. airlines by the Federal Aviation Administration. Just last month, the Air Transport Association again pressed the FAA to allow controlled cockpit napping, citing NASA research that found a mid-flight snooze significantly reduces the risks of overall pilot fatigue.

"Other regulatory agencies have endorsed it for many years with no adverse consequences," the group, which represents the major U.S. airlines, along with associations for regional and cargo airlines, wrote to Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's associate administrator for safety.

The NASA study begun in 1989 allowed one group of pilots flying across the Pacific to take a 25-minute nap while their co-pilots flew the planes, while a control group was required to remain awake for the entire flight. Those without the naps nodded off five times as much — including while on the approach to the airport — as those who got some sleep.

The research didn't sway the FAA, but it didn't go unnoticed among those pilots who break the agency's rules by catching some sleep while in the cockpit, said Curt Graeber, the former chief engineer for human factors in Boeing Co.'s commercial airplane division.

"We used to call it the NASA nap, or snooze cruise," he said.

FAA rules currently allow airline pilots to fly eight hours in a 16-hour "duty day," which includes briefings and other preparation time. Commercial airline pilots often make long, tiring commutes to reach their departure point; the pilots of the San Diego-Minneapolis flight live in Oregon and Washington state. Once on duty, pilots can sit for long hours behind a locked door minding a plane that is largely automated once they're airborne.

American Airlines pilot Sam Mayer said problems with fatigue are greatest among pilots who make several short trips a day, sometimes for three or four days in a row. Flight 188 captain Timothy B. Cheney and first officer Cole had just started their work week and were coming off a 19-hour layover, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Saturday, citing an internal Northwest document it said was described to the newspaper.

Under their contract, American Airlines pilots who refuse to fly because they're tired are protected from retaliation. Skipping a flight means not getting paid for those hours, and Mayer said the Minneapolis incident "is more anecdotal evidence that pilots are fatigued out there."

Third pilot on long flights
On long international flights, a third pilot joins the flight crew so that one pilot can sleep while two remain at the controls. But Graeber said working a long-haul flight can be less tiring than flying a small commuter jet at low altitude on multiple takeoffs and landings on one shift.

"There's a lot more stress than flying a 747 with a bunk in the back," he said.

The NTSB plans to investigate whether fatigue was a factor and will interview the pilots next week. Northwest, acquired last year by Delta Air Lines Inc., has suspended Cheney and Cole and is also investigating.

An airport police report said the men were "cooperative, apologetic and appreciative" and volunteered to take tests that were zero for alcohol use. They told police they missed the airport because they had become distracted by a heated discussion, something retired Delta pilot Joe Mazzone said could have led them to miss a critical radio handoff between air traffic controllers.

"You're talking about 15 minutes if they were at 500 knots," Mazzone said. "It's not long at all."

But Mazzone, who flew jet airliners for 23 years, said it's just as possible they got caught napping.

"It's kind of like being in an operating room. You know the physicians and the nurses ... are listening to music, telling jokes, they're doing what keeps them alert," he said. "Things are happening that if the public knew about it, they wouldn't understand it, but it's done. They've got the same thing in the cockpit."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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