What the Wayward Pilots of NW Flight 188 Were Up To

The pilots claim they overshot Minneapolis by 150 miles because of their laptops, but columnists don't buy it

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The pilots of Northwest Flight 188 overshot ("overflew") Minneapolis by more than 150 miles. Air traffic controllers tried to reach the pilots for an hour before it landed, by which time panicky officials had notified the White House of the problem, and the Pentagon was scrambling fighter jets in case of a hijacking. So how do the pilots explain their detour? They claim they were distracted by their laptops and a "heated" conversation about new airline policies. Commentators and flying experts aren't buying it. From plausible to the fanciful, here are their theories on what the pilots were doing:

  • They Were Probably Sleeping The Atlantic's James Fallows, himself a private pilot, says their story is "simply impossible to believe." He says "flying an airplane is different from driving a car, in that it doesn't take constant second-by-second attention to the mechanics of where you're going and how you're handling the controls. If you type out a text message while you're driving a car, you really are putting yourself and others in danger." And he argues that falling asleep would be "less damning" than the explanations the pilots have been offering. "If they fell asleep, that's bad, but they could argue some kind of force majeure. But if their 'heated conversation' (previous story) or intense laptop use (current story) kept them from remembering their most elemental responsibility as pilots, that really is beyond the pale."
  • Nod Is My Co-Pilot At Slate, William Saletan also thinks it's fairly obvious that the pilots were sleeping. "They claim they were awake. We'll see. But in general, sleep happens." And he says it's probably safer to accept that pilots need more sleep and try to manage the problem than it is to forbid naps on planes. "If cockpit sleep is going to happen anyway, like dessert and teen sex, then maybe we should manage it instead of forbidding it. Martin points out that several airline executives have offered to endorse 'controlled cockpit napping' on long domestic flights. This practice, currently allowed only on international journeys, involves multiple pilots sleeping in shifts so that somebody is always awake at the controls." And at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum agrees. "The laptop story really, really doesn't hold water," he writes. "These guys need to remember the first lesson about what to do when you find yourself in a hole: stop digging."
  • Love In the Air? At The National Review, Jonah Goldberg has a different theory. "Will no one say it? If they weren't asleep, weren't arguing, and if the communications gear worked, then maybe the pilots were distracted by, um, their passion for flying?"
  • Must Be Porn Michael Roston of TrueSlant says the pilots probably were on their laptops. "Pilots overshot their destination and almost caused their plane to get shot down by the US Air Force - they were 'working on their laptops.' [Insert 'surfing for porn on the web' joke here]"
  • Blame Deregulation? At the liberal Minnesota Independent, Chris Steller hopes the pilots really were in a "heated" discussion about airline mergers. "The Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot Minneapolis-St. Paul last week told federal investigators they were immersed in discussion about the airline's merger with Delta."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.