Inexcusable Pilot Excuses

Like many people (including my Atlantic colleague Jim Fallows), when I first heard about Northwest Airlines Flight 188 going radio silent for 75 minutes and overshooting its destination by 150 miles in October, I figured the pilots must have fallen asleep. As a pilot myself, I could think of no other conceivable reason for such a jaw-dropping lapse in pilot performance. And like Fallows, I, too, reacted with disbelief when the pilots said they had simply been too absorbed with company scheduling issues on their laptop computers. For over an hour?? With absolutely zero thought to where the heck are we??

In subsequent conversations with airline pilots I know, I discovered that to those who fly the line, it's not inconceivable. Just appalling. Suffice it to say that there are apparently a few other pilots out there whose sense of professionalism is noticeably and irritatingly lacking. And while pilots usually try to cut each other a little slack, especially from critiques outside the industry, I've only received one email from an airline pilot defending the actions of the Northwest crew. The rest ran along the lines of "they should be stripped of their ratings and pensions and never be allowed to fly an airplane again. Period."

The FAA agreed, revoking the pilots' certificates within days of the event. The reason all this is noteworthy again is that the pilots are currently in the process of appealing those revocations. And in statements to the FAA released Monday, they tried to shift the blame onto the air traffic controllers who failed to get in touch with them, saying that failures by the air traffic controllers that were "a causal or contributing factor in the incident."

I'm not sure which is more outrageous, actually. To get so engrossed in your personal priorities that you don't bother to ask, "gee, why is Center not calling us," or glance at any of the navigation screens that show you fast approaching your destination, or notice any of the  eight separate text messages your own dispatchers have sent you, accompanied by warning lights ... in short, to not think for even one minute about actually flying the airplane ... or to try to blame it on controllers who didn't manage to yell at you loudly enough to get your distracted attention.

It is drilled into every pilot, from the earliest days of their flight training, that the pilot in command is just that: the person who holds final responsibility and accountability for the safe outcome of every flight. If you're flying in busy airspace, in clouds, or at altitudes where the airlines cruise, there are rules that say you have to be in contact with controllers and on a flight plan, at all times. If a controller says you need to do something, in most cases, you should do it. But the pilot retains final responsibility and say over the operation of the aircraft--as it should be. After all, as pilots are fond of saying, the furthest a controller can fall is the 18 inches from their chair to the floor.

If a pilot doesn't feel they can safely execute a controller's request, the simple response "unable" trumps the controller's direction. If worse comes to worst, a pilot can simply declare an emergency and do whatever is necessary to save the airplane and sort the details out on the ground. So blaming the controllers for not doing a better job at getting you to do your job is an even flimsier excuse than saying "the dog ate my homework" or "Johnny made me do it."

Controllers can make mistakes, of course, and from reading the transcripts of the air traffic control communications related to that flight, it seems as if there might have been room for improvement. Not in getting the attention of the Northwest pilots (one controller tried to contact the pilots more than a dozen times), but in realizing that a potentially serious situation, with potentially serious security concerns, was unfolding before them.

In the years since the attacks of 9/11, any number of small airplane pilots who strayed out of approved flight paths or airspace have found themselves eye to eye with pilots in military aircraft and helicopters, signaling stern orders to follow them to an airport and land NOW. This, mind you, for little training aircraft that weigh less than a Honda Civic and could probably do less damage. Yet an airliner with the fuel and mass to really do damage goes radio silent for over an hour, and cruises right past its destination, and nobody moved to intercept it--at least in part because controllers were slow to process what was going on and notify the appropriate agencies.

A mismanaged shift change in Denver may account for some of the delay. And in all fairness, the controllers after that assumed a benign explanation: that the flight had simply lost its radios and was unable to talk to anyone. So they treated it as such. And that kind of thing does happen. But the transcripts also show confusion among controllers about what was really going on and what to do about it. The same kind of confusion that the transcripts of controllers on 9/11 showed. Where are they? Are you talking to them? Can you get someone to try to reach them? Did someone call their company dispatchers?

Of course, the airliner had not departed from its flight path, or shown erratic behavior that would have raised more alarm. And enough little glitches happen in air traffic control communications that controllers are not trigger-loaded to ring alarm bells at the first sign of something amiss. But, still. The Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command is not pleased.

It's been said that the attacks of 9/11 succeeded due to a lack of imagination on our part. We simply couldn't conceive of hijackers using box cutters to take over airplanes and fly them into buildings. And perhaps the controllers working with Flight 188 had, thankfully, gotten so used to safe skies again that they assumed a lack of contact from an airliner meant an inoperable radio rather than imagining something more serious.

So I hope controllers are getting a refresher course on the importance of better coordination, keeping alert for anomalies, and and questioning all the possible reasons a problem might be occurring. But for the Northwest crew to blame the controllers for not preventing their own transgressions is, as Jim Fallows said of the transgressions themselves, beyond the pale.

I'm guessing that the pilots are following the advice of their lawyers, who are trying to find any and all angles out of a thin list of possibilities that might get their clients off the hook. But ever since the first officer confidently told the press that the passengers were in no danger at any time, the crew has shown an appalling lack of awareness of just how egregious their sins were. What if the flight had been intercepted, as it perhaps should have been? Not to mention multiple other hazards that come with having a flight crew so detached from what's going on in the cockpit.

Perhaps it's asking too much to expect pilots who thought so little of their professional responsibilities in the first place to step up and take professional, mature responsibility for their failures. And the idea of minimizing their professional and legal exposure and cost is surely a tempting one. But redemption doesn't come as easily as a legal victory. And it surely doesn't come from blaming someone else for your own mistakes.

(Photo: Flickr/Dave Heuts)