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Fri, Mar 19, 2010

NTSB Says Northwest Pilots' Distraction Led To Overflight Of Minneapolis

Notes ATC Shortcomings, Issues Recommendations On ATC Procedures

The NTSB has determined that Northwest Airlines flight 188 overflew its destination airport of Minneapolis by more than 100 miles and failed to maintain radio communications because the pilots became distracted by a conversation unrelated to the operation of the aircraft. The NTSB's accident brief, released Thursday, also notes air traffic control shortcomings during the event, and the Board issued two safety recommendations to address those shortcomings.

On October 21, 2009, Northwest Airlines flight 188, an Airbus A320 (N374NW) operating as a scheduled flight between San Diego and Minneapolis, did not communicate with air traffic control for approximately one hour 17 minutes. While in this NORDO (no radio communications) state, it flew
past its intended destination at a cruise altitude of 37,000 feet. The crew subsequently re-established radio communications and landed without further incident. There were no injuries.

The NTSB said that the pilots continued to fly through several air traffic control sectors without replying to any radio commands. The investigation found that the pilots had become engaged in a conversation dealing with the process by which pilots request flight schedules and during the conversation each was using his personal laptop computer, contrary to company policy. The pilots were not aware of the repeated attempts by air traffic controllers' and the airline to contact them until a flight attendant used the intercom to inquire about the progress of the flight.

The NTSB also found that the lack of national requirements for recording ATC instructions when using automated flight tracking systems, such as directing an aircraft to switch frequencies or to indicate that an aircraft has checked in on an assigned frequency, was a factor in the controllers delay in performing necessary actions and notifications required by lost communications procedures. In addition, because NORDO events of a short duration are not uncommon, the Safety Board found that controllers and managers may have become complacent in completing necessary NORDO actions and required notifications in a timely manner.

As a result of deficiencies in ATC communications procedures revealed in this investigation and an accident involving a Pilatus PC-12/45 that crashed in Butte, Montana on March 22, 2009, the Board is making recommendations to the FAA to address the following issues: 

  • The lack of standard procedures for identifying flight crew-ATC communications in ATC facilities that use automated flight tracking systems.
  • The lack of standard phraseology for identifying the emergency nature of emergency ATC radio transmissions.

The NTSB recommends that the FAA:

  • Establish and implement standard procedures to document and share control information, such as frequency changes, contact with pilots, and the confirmation of the receipt of weather information, at air traffic control facilities that do not currently have such a procedure. These procedures should provide visual communication of at least the control information that would be communicated by the marking and posting of paper flight-progress strips described in Federal Aviation Administration Order 7110.65, “Air Traffic Control.”
  • Require air traffic controllers to use standard phraseology, such as “on guard,” to verbally identify transmissions over emergency frequencies as emergencies.

The NTSB will convene a 3-day public forum on professionalism in aviation to address methods for ensuring excellence in pilot and air traffic controller performance. The forum is intended to raise awareness by promoting an open discussion between the Board and invited panelists drawn from industry, labor, academia, and government on the importance of developing and reinforcing professionalism in the aviation industry. The forum is scheduled for May 18-20, 2010. More information regarding the forum will be announced in the coming weeks.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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