In case you were wondering.... (Updated)

... the Northwest Airlines flight that apparently "missed" the Minneapolis-St Paul airport today and overshot it by 150 miles did not make an ordinary mistake, like missing Exit 32A on a busy freeway and having to get off on Exit 32B.This is more like ... well, it's hard to think of a comparison, because it's pretty startling.

Once when I was flying westward toward the Rapid City airport in South Dakota, I found myself lining up 25 miles away instead with the much bigger runway of Ellsworth Air Force Base nearby. I must not have been the first one to do so, because the controller said in a routine way, "What you're probably heading for is Ellsworth. You want to turn your head ten degrees to the left and look for a little airport that's closer. That's where you want to go." This was embarrassing enough, and it was just my wife and me, not a bunch of paying passengers. (Below, Google Earth's view of what caused my problems. The runways have similar orientation, and Ellsworth is the first one you see from a distance. And this is from straight overhead! I was looking from a slant, into a setting sun, from a relatively low altitude, way off in the distance. It's a miracle I saw either of them!)

RapidCity.jpg


In contrast, from the air you really cannot miss a big, busy, international airport. It's unlike anything else you see -- especially when controllers are talking you every step of the way, as they are required to with airliners. Rather, I guess you can miss it, but it's a surprise.

Glad everyone is safe. Will be interesting to hear the pilots' account. I have my own hypotheses, but it's fairer to wait.

UPDATE: To avoid being coy about my "hypothesis," it's hard to imagine how this could have happened if the pilots were awake. There is too much going on in the last 45 minutes of a flight -- with procedures for arrival, approach, and landing, many checklists -- just to be "distracted." So most likely either they both fell asleep in the normal sense or, weirdly, were both disabled in a way they then recovered from. After a cockpit crew on Go! airlines fell asleep for fifteen minutes in Hawaii last year while their plane was headed out toward the open ocean, one of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's readers offered this possible explanation:

"Aliens I say. They took the pilots to their spaceship, then put them back in the plane. They were gone for 2 weeks, but only 15 minutes Earth time." 

Bonus analysis point: on top of the Colgan crash in Buffalo early this year, plus that previous Hawaiian sleeping-pilots problem, we are bound to see more serious political attention to the question of work rules, fatigue, pilot training, etc under the new operating realities of the airline industry. Thanks to M. Griffith for the Go! tip.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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