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Officials Probe If Northwest Pilots Were Asleep

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Was it fatigue, a heated conversation over airline policy or something else that caused two pilots to fly more than 150 miles past their destination? It happened Wednesday night. Northwest Flight 188 was headed from San Diego to Minneapolis, but it passed the airport and kept going before pilots discovered their mistake and turned around. The case is now under federal investigation, as Tom Weber of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

TOM WEBER: Bob Parker(ph) was aboard Flight 188 Wednesday night which left San Diego late, flew through a storm on the way, and to Parker, seemed to be taking forever to arrive. Parker says he didn't realize anything was wrong until after the plane finally landed in Minneapolis.

Mr. BOB PARKER: And a police officer boarded the plane and said something to the flight attendant who reached on the intercom and said, everyone needs to sit back down in a stern voice.

WEBER: Passengers were allowed to leave a few minutes later. Parker noticed four things as he left the plane. Police were removing some kind of plastic case from the cockpit. The pilots were not out greeting passengers, the flight attendants all looked scared and even more police and men in suits were standing in the jetway ramp between the plane and concourse.

Mr. PARKER: It was strange. You - when you were deplaning, it felt really, really odd.

WEBER: It was only later that he and others learned the plane had overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and flown well into Wisconsin before turning back. Not only that, the pilots were out of radio contact with ground controllers for more than an hour and military jets were put on alert and ready to scramble in pursuit.

Pilots from two other planes in the area were finally able to reach the pilot on a different radio frequency, according to the Associated Press. After reestablishing contact, controllers asked the crew to execute a series of turns to show they were in control of the aircraft - a post 9/11 precaution. Authorities say the pilots reported being in a heated discussion, which is why they missed the airport. Bill Voss, who heads the Flight Safety Foundation in Virginia, isn't sure that's the whole story.

Mr. BILL VOSS (Head, Flight Safety Foundation): It doesn't seem to be logical that you could have that heated of an argument for that long. And there are a lot of visual and audio cues that they should've picked up on.

WEBER: One of those cues on this type of Airbus plane is a video screen in front of both pilots that would've shown where the plane was in relation to its destination. That's according to Ben Berman, a pilot and former NTSB investigator.

Mr. BEN BERMAN (Pilot): Pilots have to do a number of things to prepare for descent. Somewhere, more than a hundred miles from Minneapolis, they should have been doing that.

WEBER: That's also why considerable speculations centers on possible fatigue. The NTSB says it doesn't know yet if the crew fell asleep, though Bill Voss with the Flight Safety Foundation says that will likely be of little consequence to these two pilots, who he says face the real likelihood of being fired.

Mr. VOSS: At the end of the day, in terms for the fate of this crew, I'm afraid it doesn't matter much which one of those you choose. They're both pretty bad situations to have to own up to.

WEBER: But if fatigue is found to have been a factor, it's just the latest incident to highlight the issue, including a fatal plane crash in February near Buffalo. The FAA is updating decades-old rules that mandate just how long commercial pilots can fly and stay on duty. Congress is also acting. Just last week, the House voted to toughen a number of pilot regulations. The names of the fly-over pilots have not been released but they have been suspended while the NTSB investigates.

One thing is known: the plane in this incident appears to have an older model cockpit voice recorder on board, which only retains the last 30 minutes of conversation. That means those crucial moments during the flight when there was no contact with the ground might not be available.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Weber in Saint Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Weber