Posted by: Tim Lincoln | October 22, 2009

Not a Good Day for Aviation

A second embarrassing incident for Delta/Northwest, and a horrific accident near Sharjah in the UAE. Yesterday was definitely not a good day for aviation.

Northwest Airlines flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis was proceeding normally… right up until the pilots stopped responding to controllers and the aircraft missed its Top of Descent point and flew over Minneapolis at 37,000 feet (Flight Level 370), then kept right on going. What was going on in the cockpit that caused this flight to overshoot its destination by more than 150 miles? The pilots claimed to have been in a “heated discussion,” but what self respecting pilot gets into a discussion that completely removes him from any semblance of flying the aircraft for 16 minutes. At some point that good old mental light bulb has to come on and say “Hey, aren’t you forgetting something?”

Of course there is a lot of speculation on the part of people who were not present in the cockpit, or even on the flight for that matter, about the pilots having fallen asleep. While that is certainly possible, and actually a bit more plausible than a “heated discussion,” why don’t we wait until Delta/Northwest and the FAA have a chance to review the Cockpit Voice Recorder to find out what was actually going on in the cockpit. Regardless of what was actually happening, it is a second example of gross loss of situational awareness by a Delta/Northwest flight crew in the same day.

Meanwhile, half way around the world, a cargo Boeing 707 operated by Sudanese airline Azza Air crashed shortly after takeoff from the airport at Sharjah, in the UAE. All six crew members on board perished. At this point in time there is little known about what happened, but there is some speculation about one of the aircraft’s engines separating from the wing. While this may be the case, and I am certainly not familiar with the systems on a 707, loss of power from one or both engines on one wing (including physical loss of one or both engines) should not create the severe bank angle seen in the video just prior to impact.

I am certain that another factor was involved, but we will have to wait and see what the investigation finds out. In the meantime, Boeing has expressed it’s “heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends” of the crewmembers who lost their lives in the accident. Boeing, the US Government, and the NTSB are all standing by to lend assistance in the investigation if it is requested.

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