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Lost Northwest Pilots Were Trying Out New Software

timothy posted more than 4 years ago | from the so-they-say dept.

Transportation 518

Hugh Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that two Northwest Airlines pilots who flew about 110 miles past their destination to the skies over Wisconsin as more than a dozen air-traffic controllers in three locations tried to get the plane's attention had taken out their personal laptops in the cockpit, a violation of airline policy, so the first officer could tutor the captain in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last fall. 'Both said they lost track of time,' said an interim report from the National Transportation Safety Board countering theories in aviation circles that the two pilots might have fallen asleep or were arguing in the cockpit. 'Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots' command of the aircraft during flight,' said a statement from Delta Airlines, 'is strictly against the airline's flight deck policies and violations of that policy will result in termination.' Industry executives and analysts said the pilots' behavior was a striking lapse for such veteran airmen who have a total of 31,000 flying hours of experience between them. In the case of Flight 188, 'Neither pilot was aware of the airplane's position until a flight attendant called about five minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival,' the interim report said."

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518 comments

Luck not shot down (3, Insightful)

Smegly (1607157) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882355)

At todays fear of terrorism levels, they are lucky its just job termination - if they had flown over some sensitive and/or military area they could have been shot down... or not?

Re:Luck not shot down (4, Interesting)

Ogive17 (691899) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882461)

They don't just shoot down planes if they venture into a restricted area. If radio contact fails, they then try to get visual contact. I imagine the pilots in the cockpit would notice an F-16 flying just outside the window.

I bet shooting down the plane would be a last resort, if the plane was on a collision course with a "sensitive" target. Likely the fighters would escort the passenger jet for awhile trying to gather as much information as possible.

Re:Luck not shot down (1)

muckracer (1204794) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882795)

> Likely the fighters would escort the passenger jet for awhile trying to
> gather as much information as possible.

Since civilian planes are pretty slow in comparison (remember that golfer's
Chessna incident a few years ago where they escorted him across half the
country)...just how slow can such an F-16 actually fly without dropping like a
rock?

Re:Luck not shot down (1)

DarthBart (640519) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882915)

They'd probably work in pairs, scissoring back and forth in long arcs to get his attention.

Drop a few flares or do a loud afterburner pass. That'll wake your ass up in a hurry.

Re:Luck not shot down (1)

Zantac69 (1331461) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882949)

For something like an A320 - its well within the F-16's parameters to "pull up next to it" and wave.

For something like a Cessna - they can come in for a really slow pass with full flaps...and I am sure that would get their attention. I read a thread with comments from an F-16 pilot that said they could drop to about 90mph at full flaps.

Re:Luck not shot down (1)

WoLpH (699064) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882815)

Besides that, they were only 110 miles beyond their destination, that's about 11 minutes for a plane like this. So it's not like they flew way out of course.

Re:Luck not shot down (1)

Larryish (1215510) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882971)

Or someone would have told all the fighter aircraft to stand down.

I mean, it happened 8 years ago.

Right? Right?

Re:Luck not shot down (5, Interesting)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882625)

No. A shootdown would have been nearly impossible in this situation. This was stupid, and both pilots should and probably will be terminated over it, but the passengers were never in any real danger.

The initial theory at ATC on this was probably that they had a radio failure. Radios fail, so there are procedures to deal with it. 110 mile overshoot at aircraft speeds probably means they were out of radio contact for 15-20 minutes of flight time after passing their destination. ATC was probably still working down through their checklist while dealing with the rest of the radio traffic at the same time. The aircraft has lots of reserve fuel as per FAA regs, and the plane was following its assigned flight path (a little longer than scheduled, but it wasn't going whacko, so the assumption might have been that the crew had a radio or other mechanical issue and were trying to deal with it).

ATC obviously verified that their flight path was clear, which put a tad more load on them, but they were at cruising altitude and there's plenty of room up in Class A airspace. And if they had flown over something sensitive enough to have a restricted zone up at 37,000 feet (which would be exceptionally rare, most MOAs only extend up to class A airspace, not into it), the military would have scrambled a couple of fighters to pay them a visit. If they didn't notice the fighters themselves, I'm sure some passenger would alert a stewardess and the pilots would have jumped on the emergency band in a big fat effing hurry, or if they really had a radio out watched for the wings to waggle and followed them to a runway. It's hard to miss a fighter 20 feet off your nose, and those guys are pretty damned good at getting close enough to be noticed without inducing turbulence.

I imagine a few people at ATC were just starting to get worried, since it could also be crew incapacitation (fun facts to know and tell - if you lock the very reinforced flight door from the crew side and both crewmembers die or become incapacitated, you're pretty much screwed - no Patrick Swayze bad movie moments of private pilots landing the plane at their favorite airstrip causing fun and mayhem but saving lives - just simple fuel starvation and uncontrolled descent into terrain). I'm sure there was the sound of a few strained sphincters unclenching when Dumb and Dumber got on the horn and acknowledged that they were simply distracted.

This was incredibly dumb, and deserves termination or at least a very, VERY strong reprimand, but at no time were the passengers in any danger.

Re:Luck not shot down (3, Interesting)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882705)

An early report I saw stated that air traffic guided them through some maneuvers before they landed, to ensure that they still had control of the plane (apparently standard procedure in such a situation).

Re:Luck not shot down (5, Informative)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882955)

ATC would have guided them through maneuvers anyway, so I'm sure that's true. They would have had to receive and acknowledge a new course back to the airport control area, and a descent path to pattern.

But, yeah, it wouldn't surprise me if they had the aircraft execute a few turns first to make absolutely sure they had the correct aircraft and that the pilots could comprehend and execute instructions. I've never heard of the procedure, but I'm only a private pilot and the few times I've used flight following I've managed to keep positive radio contact at all times.

And the maneuvers served another purpose. Time building. After all, since this was probably their last flight the pilots might as well make the most of it and log as much PIC time as they can... and, hey, they know how to use the new scheduling system now, so they can clearly see that they don't have any flights coming up in the near future.

I just read a more thorough FAA report on the incident, and it seems they were out of contact for about an hour, and other pilots on other aircraft where assisting trying different frequencies. Pilots do lose contact with ATC from time to time when up in Class A airspace, but this one was probably VERY close to the point where they'd scramble a couple of fast intercept planes to go check things out.

Re:Luck not shot down (1)

smooth wombat (796938) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882745)

no Patrick Swayze bad movie moments of private pilots landing the plane at their favorite airstrip causing fun and mayhem but saving lives

Nitpick: it wasn't Patrick Swayze, it was Kurt Russell and the movie was Executive Decision.

Unless you were thinking of another movie.

Re:Luck not shot down (2, Insightful)

TheLink (130905) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882859)

To me Executive Decision was a noteworthy movie because of a rather unexpected bit halfway through the movie... Nope, not going to give it away :p.

Strangely enough there was a crappier clone movie of Executive Decision called Strategic Command (Executive Command was the working title).

Re:Luck not shot down (1)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882865)

Thanks. I wasn't sure of the movie. I only saw the end while channel surfing one day, where he landed a big plane in a teeny airstrip that was WAY too short for the aircraft and smashed up a bunch of Cessnas and Pipers in the process. I had no interest in watching the rest. I was laughing too hard at what I did see. LOL.

NorthWORST (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882361)

NorthWORST
Shitty airline

This is news to me. (5, Funny)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882377)

I knew vista takes forever to boot, and so I am not surprised it took the first officer some 20 minutes to start the tutoring session. Also the boot has cool graphics splash screen and I could imagine the pilots being engrossed and entranced by the splash screen. But it is news to me it will also freeze all electronics within vicinity. I know the vista WiFi setup tries really hard to find any possible router in the vicinity and blasts the surrounding space with all sorts of radiation hoping to get a positive response from a router.

But it is news to me, it can commandeer aircraft radios and navigational aids within vicinity and convert them into a giant Wi-Fi range extenders.

Re:This is news to me. (1)

upuv (1201447) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882477)

It was bloody windows 7.

I would hope a Pilot was smarter than that to use Vista Yeesh!

I'm guessing Malware infection from Delta hub slowed the whole thing down.

Yep! (2, Funny)

thogard (43403) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882379)

Yep. Thats my story and I'm sticking to it. I wasn't sleeping. I wasn't browsing the web. I was using the future of cockpit aviation.

We have an emergency (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882391)

Mayday!

Anonymous coward calling karma whore!
Anonymous coward calling karma whore!

Mayday!! Mayday!!

Radio Reception? (4, Interesting)

Iskender (1040286) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882399)

Shouldn't they have picked up air traffic control yelling at them regardless? I'm guessing they had their headphones off (if such are even used), but I would think that there would be blinking lights at a minimum, and hopefully any voices would come through. If nothing else, they should be tuned into some kind of emergency frequency no matter what.

It seems to me something is either designed wrong, or the pilots were being much more inattentive than one would expect from even someone using a laptop.

Any pilots or other I am a somethings around?

Re:Radio Reception? (3, Informative)

smooth wombat (796938) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882493)

I'm guessing they had their headphones off (if such are even used),

I happened to hear this morning on CNN that the pilots indicated they had removed their headphones, which is a reason not to hear the airport calling for their attention. They also said they did not see any messages from the home office trying to get their attention but did hear general conversations on the radio.

P.S. Your comment is number 3 on Google if you search for 'Northwest pilots headphones'.

Re:Radio Reception? (1)

commodore64_love (1445365) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882777)

Good thing there wasn't an emergency radio announcement like, "There's a plane heading straight for you. Raise altitude 10,000 feet."

Re:Radio Reception? (4, Insightful)

Aqualung812 (959532) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882807)

That's why I'm not upset that they have been fired. At first, I thought it was a bit of an honest mistake, but those kind of mistakes are not allowed with a jet full of people.

Re:Radio Reception? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882837)

I'd hope and pray that all american carriers are using TCAS; of which if TCAS is telling you to do something, YOU'LL NOTICE.

Re:Radio Reception? (5, Informative)

mysidia (191772) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882505)

“Both said they lost track of time,” the report stated. It also said that the pilots had heard voices over their cockpit radios but ignored them.

Re:Radio Reception? (2, Interesting)

upuv (1201447) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882565)

Nope. Each control zone has a unique frequency.

However since they were on their laptops if someone had sent them an IM, Twitter, or email they would have probably been alright.

pushed? not a big deal? (4, Insightful)

v1 (525388) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882571)

Shouldn't they have picked up air traffic control yelling at them regardless?

Would have to assume they took off the headphones so they could hear each other as they discussed the computer app. I don't think there's a speaker in the cockpit from the tower.

Two questions come to mind:

1) what sort of urgency was placed on learning this new system? Were they being rushed? Did anyone suggest they hurry up and get each other up to speed on the app ("as soon as possible"/"whenever you get a chance"?) and they simply didn't have any personal time left to do it? (things like this tend to get pushed to be done on personal, rather than paid, time)
2) 110 miles in a jet? really? big detour? How long does it take a jet to travel 110 miles? This extended the flight what, a whole 15 minutes counting backtrack time? For a jet that's like a bus driver missing an exit and having to drive another 4 miles to the next cloverleaf and do a 180. Though it probably had a few more exaggerated side-effects, like passengers missing connecting flights (which happens too much anyway even when planes are on time) plus the cost of a few hundred pounds of fuel. But still, seems like its being overblown.

Re:pushed? not a big deal? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882899)

You have to begin your descent loooooong before the 110 miles. They were still at cruising altitude when they noticed they were past their mark.

Re:pushed? not a big deal? (1)

murphyd311 (1364187) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882947)

I don't think there's a speaker in the cockpit from the tower

From the last link the TFS (emphasis mine):

At cruise altitude - the pilots stated they were using cockpit speakers to listen to radio communications, not their headsets.

Re:Radio Reception? (1)

soundhack (179543) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882585)

Although I can understand that they didnt hear the ATC because they didnt have headsets/radio on, wouldnt the GPS navigation system alert them with beeps that the next waypoint is coming up?

Re:Radio Reception? (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882697)

You are new here...it is well known that using electronic equipments on an aircraft interfers with onboard communication system.

Re:Radio Reception? (1)

jeffmeden (135043) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882785)

but I would think that there would be blinking lights at a minimum, and hopefully any voices would come through.

Flying a Jet isn't *exactly* like Star Trek; there are no Hailing Frequencies and there was (I assume) no dry-witted, multicultural communications officer standing by to recognize the request. They wear headsets for radio comms, took the headsets off, and as such radio comms were useless.

Re:Radio Reception? (1)

AlecC (512609) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882883)

On of the linked articles said that they headphones off, with RT on the flight deck audio. They were aware of the audio, but not listening to it.

In an airplane (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882401)

so the first officer could tutor the captain in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last fall.

Shirley you'll agree that these men should be punished for endangering the over 144 passengers. I don't think it matters if it was a laptop, them arguing, sleeping pilots, or them practicing their jive talk. It's just plain dangerous.

Re:In an airplane (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882515)

I do agree that these men should be punished, and stop calling me Shirley.

WTF? (5, Funny)

rts008 (812749) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882403)

They were raiding in WoW, I would imagine. ;-)

"Tutoring in the new scheduling software", my ass.

Re:WTF? (0, Troll)

upuv (1201447) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882557)

Wow in Flight has to much LAG. Can't raid. Daily quests maybe!

Ah I got it. Auction house bidding war. And they were the two idiots out bidding each other.

I guess neither one of them... (5, Insightful)

doug141 (863552) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882417)

will need to know how to use the new scheduling system now!

Re:I guess neither one of them... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882463)

YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAHHH!

I'm sorry, someone had to do it. :)

Re:I guess neither one of them... (1)

TheSpoom (715771) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882499)

I guess one of us...

*puts on sunglasses*

is better than one of them.

Re:I guess neither one of them... (1)

commodore64_love (1445365) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882801)

I just watched the recent CSI Miami, about tainted food, and Horatio didn't give his imfamous line! I was so disappointed. Maybe I can make one up.

This sounds like...

*puts on sunglasses*

...a case of mad people disease.

Oh, puhlease (5, Funny)

new death barbie (240326) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882421)

They were SO engrossed they neglected to respond to repeated attempts at contact for OVER AN HOUR? They weren't learning a new scheduling system.

They were on a WoW raid, more like.

Re:Oh, puhlease (5, Interesting)

upuv (1201447) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882539)

Each air traffic control region has an alternate frequency. So yah if they didn't bother to change the frequency they were on they wouldn't hear squat.

Re:Oh, puhlease (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882589)

Doubtful. They were swapping handjobs.

Whoa (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882429)

Sometimes I'm glad I'm just piloting an office building.

Flight sim? (0, Redundant)

red_dragon (1761) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882433)

So essentially they were using a flight simulator while piloting their aircraft? "Sup dawg, i herd you like flying, so we put a virtual cockpit in your cockpit so you can pretend to fly while you're flying."

Re:Flight sim? (1)

lucifig (255388) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882523)

It is preferable they do barrel rolls on a flight simulator than a real A320 I might be flying on.

*Come on, I know I'm not the only one who tried that on the old MS simulator

Not sure how I feel about this (2, Insightful)

realsilly (186931) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882435)

Since most planes, to my knowledge, have auto pilot, and I'm assuming it was set, isn't there something with autopilot that would have also alerted the pilots to their location and time. I understand that pilots would have had time to discuss this stuff, but I almost believe that losing track of time is a big offense. What would have happened had they had fuel issues and now they were running out of fuel?

If I was on that flight I would likely be pissed off knowing that these two who hold the responsibility to get me to my destination weren't really doing their job properly. While this ended in a non-incident there should still be some sort of repercussion for those actions. These men chose to let themselves become distracted.
 

Re:Not sure how I feel about this (4, Interesting)

upuv (1201447) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882529)

Some fancy auto pilots will alert when the flight vector has been achieved.

However most autopilots in a basic mode will simply just make sure a plane maintains heading and elevation. For I think all of US air space this basic autopilot is all that is needed as the US is basically one big highway in the sky where planes simply plop them selves in a sky lane and follow it. None of this fancy find me the fastest route and make sure I don't hit anything else sorta autopilot.

US air space is basically running as if it was 1960 still. You wouldn't fly if you saw what the majority of airports was using for radar :)

Re:Not sure how I feel about this (1)

amorsen (7485) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882755)

You wouldn't fly if you saw what the majority of airports was using for radar :)

Personally I'm a lot more worried about the new radars... Much more complexity.

However, with denser traffic there is no way around more advanced systems.

Re:Not sure how I feel about this (1)

gabebear (251933) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882839)

While this ended in a non-incident there should still be some sort of repercussion for those actions. These men chose to let themselves become distracted.

This very much reminds me of Swartzenager's wife. I do think we are generally too soft on people who do stupid crap like this and are lucky enough not to kill people.

Admit it....... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882467)

They were masturbating..... :-p

It's a tough job (2, Interesting)

jamie (78724) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882503)

Obviously the pilots should have paid more attention, but I suspect the reason they were trying to squeeze in a little extra work is that they weren't going to get paid to learn the scheduling system on their own time.

Pilots go through years of expensive schooling and have to repay their student loans like everyone else. Their salaries start around $20,000 [salon.com] if they can get hired in a very competitive market.

Remember the hero pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson, saving Flight 1549 and 155 people's lives? [mercurynews.com]

the last talk [Capt. Sullenberger] had with his wife, Lorrie, before the crash... was about money.

Like thousands of airline workers, his salary had been cut in half and he lost most of his pension. At 58, the 29-year veteran faced having to find work outside the industry and possibly having to sell his house.

Many pilots take second jobs. Some are on food stamps [michaelmoore.com]:

He took home $405 this week. My life was completely and totally in his hands for the past hour and he's paid less than the kid who delivers my pizza.

I told the guys that I have a whole section in my new movie about how pilots are treated (using pilots as only one example of how people's wages have been slashed and the middle class decimated). In the movie I interview a pilot for a major airline who made $17,000 last year. For four months he was eligible -- and received -- food stamps. Another pilot in the film has a second job as a dog walker.

"I have a second job!," the two pilots said in unison. One is a substitute teacher. The other works in a coffee shop.

Re:It's a tough job (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882611)

I'm sorry but that's just crap. New pilots, sure, they make less, but on *AVERAGE* the pay is around $70k.
http://www.avjobs.com/salaries-wages-pay/pilot-pay.asp

Re:It's a tough job (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882685)

From which arse did they pull these numbers?

Re:It's a tough job and it pays accordingly (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882957)

I'm sorry but that's just crap. New pilots, sure, they make less, but on *AVERAGE* the pay is around $70k. http://www.avjobs.com/salaries-wages-pay/pilot-pay.asp [avjobs.com]

Yeah, GP is full of BS. No stats, just single anecdotal sob stories. From a list of overpaid jobs [marketwatch.com]:

9) Major airline pilots

While American and United pilots recently took pay cuts, senior captains earn as much as $250,000 a year at Delta, and their counterparts at other major airlines still earn about $150,000 to $215,000 - several times pilot pay at regional carriers - for a job that technology has made almost fully automated.

By comparison, senior pilots make up to 40 percent less at low-fare carriers like Jet Blue and Southwest, though some enjoy favorable perks like stock options. That helps explain why their employers are profitable while several of the majors are still teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

The pilot's unions are the most powerful in the industry. They demand premium pay as if still in the glory days of long-gone Pan Am and TWA, rather than the cutthroat, deregulated market of under-$200 coast-to-coast roundtrips. In what amounts to a per-passenger commission, the larger the plane, the more they earn - even though it takes little more skill to pilot a jumbo jet. It's as much the airplane mechanics who hold our fate in their hands.

The mechanics are the ones that really get the short end of the stick. But they don't have expensive schooling.

Re:It's a tough job (3, Insightful)

Ephemeriis (315124) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882635)

This all seems to be true, in general, of most industries these days.

Folks are generally expected to work longer than 40 hours, but not actually compensated for it. Your workload will virtually necessitate coming into the office early, or working through lunch, or staying late... They'll roll out new procedures or tools or toys, but there's no time allotted for training - you're expected to learn it before or after actual work hours. And the pay for those 40 hours that you are compensated for, is going down. Maybe not literally... Maybe you didn't actually take a pay cut (though plenty of people are)... But your wages aren't keeping up with bills/inflation/whatever.

This isn't only true in the airline industry. I'm seeing it in my own little corner of the IT world - not just my own job and work hours, but those of my co-workers as well.

Re:It's a tough job (1)

Cloud K (125581) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882711)

I sympathise with the difficulty of your employer expecting you to do things while you're not being paid, and therefore attempting to squeeze it in during times when they were.

However I hardly thing that it justifies putting passengers' lives at risk. (If putting lives at risk sounds out of proportion, consider that they could have eventually ended up too short on fuel to safely land, or other things that could happen that they were cheerfully ignoring). If they feel that strongly about it, they could just not find time to learn it. When the management asks why they haven't, say they haven't had time. When they ask why they didn't use their free time, say "because it's my FREE time". Standing up to the management >>> putting lives in danger :)

Cockpit voice recorder (1)

LatencyKills (1213908) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882513)

So if they were discussing this new piece of software and using laptops, presumably you can hear all that on the cockpit voice recorder. As opposed to say, sleeping, which may or may not sound like snoring or nothing at all.

Re:Cockpit voice recorder (3, Informative)

nharmon (97591) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882567)

The CVP on this aircraft only records the last 30 minutes of conversation. So what they have is roughly from just before final approach to parking at the gate.

Re:Cockpit voice recorder (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882901)

Actually, it won't have even that. For privacy reasons, the CVR contents are immediately erased when an aircraft reaches the gate and I doubt that there was any reason not to do that (in fact, they might have had every reason to ensure that there's nothing on the CVR).

Re:Cockpit voice recorder (1)

nedlohs (1335013) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882597)

Except there was no crash to turn it off, so it will have just kept recording and it is on a 30 minute loop. So chances are it doesn't include any of that time period - and if there was something incriminating on it they would have just made sure to take 30 minutes...

Similar Distraction in 2006 Brazilian Collision (4, Interesting)

dangle (1381879) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882519)

There was an incredibly detailed account of the Brazilian midair collision in September 2006 that identified pilots trying to figure out the flight control systems on their new Legacy 600 as one of the distractions that led to the collision. Some of the controls were on a glass panel display, and there was also a laptop that distracted them. Apparently, as they were clicking around on stuff, they shut off their transponder.

http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2009/01/air_crash200901 [vanityfair.com]

Even more concerning, was the author's argument that the accuracy of GPS guided autopilot systems also contributed. Historically, even if two planes ended up at the same flight level, headed towards each other, the inherent sloppiness in the autopilot systems would actually increase the chance of a miss. Now, with autopilots capable of keeping planes within very close tolerances of their ideal flightpath, the same two planes accidentally occupying the same flight level may have a much higher chance of colliding.

Re:Similar Distraction in 2006 Brazilian Collision (1)

jgtg32a (1173373) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882869)

I remember hearing about that, and IIRC they add a bit of randomized wiggle in the flightpath, to avoid that in the future.

Bad. Real Bad. (5, Informative)

Starker_Kull (896770) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882521)

There is really no excuse for both pilots completely losing situational awareness like this. They're both toast, and deserve to be.

As for the scheduling system they were going over - actually, that is probably the 'news for nerds' part. The old airline schedules were built in two units - 'pairings' and 'lines of time'. A pairing is a group of flights, typically from 1 to 6 days long, that begun and ended in a pilot domicile. The word 'pairing' was to indicate that an entire crew was 'paired' together that whole time. A line of time (or simply a line) was a month-long group of those pairings. There is a long list of legal requrements (min rest, max flight time, union contractual obligations, aircraft mx requirements, etc.) that these schedules had to meet.

Ultimately, from the pilot's point of view, these lines were published each month for the next month. Bidding was very straightforward. If you were the number 1 senior pilot in that base (technically, domicile, aircraft and status (capt. or F/O), you picked your line, and that was that. If you were #2, you picked your schedule, and got it.... unless the number 1 guy already got it, in which case you got your second choice. If you were number #300.... well, picking 300 schedules in the order you want them was a time consuming task, but the outcome was perfectly transparent. The line awards were public, so you could verify that the schedules you didn't get really did go to senior people. You can debate whether such a system is 'fair', but at least it is clear how it works, both globally and month to month.

Then, with the advent of more powerful computers, a system called 'PBS' was born - Preferential Bidding System. These systems, instead of having hard, published lines you bid from, instead only published the pairings. You expressed your 'Preferences' through a computer language. A computer program then ran, taking everybodys preferences, seniority, system constraints, etc. into account and generated schedules.

In theory, PBS sounds great. A pilot's preferences generally don't change that much month to month, so you could file your bid away and let it run automatically each month with little or no tweaking.

In practice, it's usually been highly disruptive and caused great angst for a year or two after being implemented, for many reasons:
1) The language used to express your preferences is generally designed for the programmers, not the users.
2) The results can be, to put it mildly, unexpected. When you have pre-published schedules, you have a pretty good idea ahead of time what to expect.
3) There are no month-to-month conflicts that generate additional days off, resulting in more work per pilot, a reason the airlines like them and pilots don't, on average.
4) Non-computer savvy older pilots (Captians) have a harder time getting it than younger pilots (F/O's), on average. It takes a vastly important piece of your life (when are you working? Where are you going? 28 hours in HNL or 32 hours in XNA?), and makes it tied to your comfort with learning, essentially, a primitive computer language.

I cringe when I see this, because I've done this - taught Captians while flying about PBS. So have many other F/O's. You just prioritize it where it belongs - below aviating, navigating and communicating. These guys made everyone else look bad.

Re:Bad. Real Bad. (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882691)

I cringe when I see this, because I've done this - taught Captians while flying about PBS. So have many other F/O's. You just prioritize it where it belongs - below aviating, navigating and communicating. These guys made everyone else look bad.

So you're saying that it makes everyone else look bad purely because they got caught? It had nothing to do with them violating the airline's policy. It's only bad because they got caught?!?

Re:Bad. Real Bad. (1)

Z34107 (925136) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882863)

Read again, Anon. "You prioritize it where it belongs - below aviating, navigating and communicating." (emphasis mine.)

"These guys made everyone else look bad" because they prioritized it above all those things and decided to figure out their schedule mid-flight. OP was not implying it was only bad "because they got caught."

Re:Bad. Real Bad. (2, Insightful)

Chris Mattern (191822) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882941)

Anon has a point. While the OP's problem wasn't so much that they got caught as that they stopped paying attention to their duties to do it (which is, admittedly, what caused them to get caught), the fact remains that *regardless* of how of an aircrew "prioritizes" it, it is strictly against procedures to be doing this, and a termination offense.

Re:Bad. Real Bad. (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882905)

As a person who has actually written a PBS, my experience from talking with airline workers is that PBS generates MUCH higher satisfaction rates than traditional bidline systems. Bidline works okay for the top few members of each group, but does very little for juniors because there are only a few lines left to choose as you go through seniority (if there are 500 people, there might be 400 lines, so the person with seniority 300 has only 100 choices of lines, all of which usually suck)

It's true that the bids can be a little bit complex, but we did try to make an effort to make the bidding syntax logical and as simple as possible.

I am surprised (5, Insightful)

jellomizer (103300) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882537)

I am surprised that anyone is able to keep their job. Where an honest mistake where no one was harmed causes someone to loose their career. I would feel more comfortable riding in a plain from a pilot who has a relatively good record and made a mistake and got severely corrected As they know the severity of their mistake, and are extra careful not to make an other one. Vs. a Pilot who has a good records but has gone too comfortable with their job, and will be likely to make their first mistake.

It reminds me when I first started working. I was cleaning out my old backup files. so I meant to do a rm -f *~ but me being green and not so careful I did an rm -f * ~

I Hit Ctrl-C after I realized it was taking way to long. However, I cleared out about 2 weeks of work. Plus my personal documents. Needless to say I learned to backup more freaklently and the value of a good source control system.
But If I were to get fired after that mistake and forced to switch careers then I wouldn't be able to apply my new learned methods.

That is why I cringe whenever there is a big mistake and people go well I hope that guy gets fired. Because the guy who did the mistake and especially if he was honest about it, would probably be so much more careful the nest time around. Who I would be more worried about is the guy who fired him. As part of the mistake is on him too. For not making sure they are safe guard in place.

Some perspective (4, Insightful)

turing_m (1030530) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882593)

It reminds me when I first started working. I was cleaning out my old backup files. so I meant to do a rm -f *~ but me being green and not so careful I did an rm -f * ~

The difference between that and the mistake of a pilot is a potential several hundred lives.

Re:I am surprised (3, Insightful)

rotide (1015173) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882643)

I see what you're saying, however, you deleting your files may hurt your employers bottom line and potentially yours _at worst_, pilots losing awareness can mean hundreds of deaths.

Now I'm not saying they should be fired, but I can easily see why they would be. Airlines and pilots are held to very strict standards by the government.

Could additional "training" and a heavy penalty/fine resolve the issue and create two better pilots? Possibly and potentially even likely. But if the punishment for potentially putting hundreds of lives in risk is a slap on the wrist, do you really think all the thousands of other pilots are really going to take notice? I have a feeling being fired in this case shows all the other pilots to simply only consider being distracted if you want to lose your job. In short, it appears any "big" mistake ends in termination simply to make examples of you.

Re:I am surprised (3, Insightful)

Cloud K (125581) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882811)

I certainly agree that nobody should be fired for a genuine, simple mistake, and with the idea that people will learn from their mistakes and become better at their jobs as a result.

Nor do I particularly like to see people lose their jobs and therefore a lot of their chances of getting another, leading to what could be a very bad impact on their livelihood (and possibly the family's).

But there's a difference between a genuine mistake and neglect. Hearing things on the radio but ignoring it, falls firmly into the neglect category IMO. And that's where they unfortunately but quite rightly shouldn't be trusted to fly again. Mistakes are a learning experience, but neglect is a personality problem.

Re:I am surprised (5, Funny)

trudyscousin (258684) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882817)

Needless to say I learned to backup more freaklently

The evolution of the English language is a fascinating thing.

Slight misunderstanding by the journalist (3, Funny)

BabyDave (575083) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882555)

They were actually having a flamewar on LKML about what the best scheduler for the Linux kernel is.

This is a non-event. (1, Interesting)

thickdiick (1663057) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882563)

This is a non-event. The autopilot takes care of everything in a modern aircraft. In Airbus aircraft, it can even take off and land. The pilot-in-command is there for EMERGENCIES that cannot be handled reliably by autopilot. Almost all of the training of a commercial/airline pilot is related to emergencies. As you can tell, with combined 30k hours of flight time between them, this is the STANDARD (albeit unofficial) procedure in any airline. Flying is very boring to the crew in the time between take-off and landing — the two biggest responsibilities of the human pilots. In fact, some airlines do not allow human pilots to fly the aircraft because autopilot is a lot better on fuel economy. Their biggest mistake was not programming the autopilot correctly for that flight.

Re:This is a non-event. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29882605)

Autopilot is not use for taking off and landing on commerical planes in the U.S., ever. All it does it keep a bearing and elevation.

Re:This is a non-event. (5, Insightful)

LurkerXXX (667952) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882681)

You mean like unknown to the pilot emergencies that might be communicated to him by a traffic controller, such as change your altitude, you are on a collision course with x-other plane?

A pilot ignoring traffic controllers for over an hour is NOT a non-event.

Re:This is a non-event. (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882841)

The autopilot takes care of everything in a modern aircraft.

Including collision avoidance and generating an endless supply of fuel?

Recipe for disaster? (1)

mysidia (191772) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882573)

No check-ins... no access by the crew.. if the pilot becomes incapacitated, they are screwed:

Flight attendants have not had keys to open a plane’s cockpit door since the 2001 terrorist attacks, and there is no procedure in which they regularly check on pilots. The cabin crew communicates by phone or through chimes that can be heard in the passenger cabin.

Re:Recipe for disaster? (1)

pedestrian crossing (802349) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882825)

I know there are at least some precautions.

As I was boarding a flight the other day, I noticed a clipboard that was sitting at the end of the jetway, and there was a form there that was used to verify that pilot and copilot were not eating the same thing for their in-flight meal.

Complete overreaction (4, Informative)

thickdiick (1663057) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882645)

Do you know what happens to a captain (or any pilot, for that matter) when they are terminated? They start at the bottom of any airline that hires them. Yes, seniority is only on a per-airline basis. The only thing that matters in seniority is how long you've been at THAT airline.

They were working, after all (5, Insightful)

Pascal Sartoretti (454385) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882659)

so the first officer could tutor the captain in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines

If this is really the case (which is still to be confirmed), then they were at least working for their company, making the best use of what they (incorrectly) thought was "available" time.

Keep this in mind, all of you reading slashdot at work !

Just Say No to publci transport (-1, Troll)

commodore64_love (1445365) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882675)

- Bus driver texting rear-ends a car

- Subway/metro driver using cellphone rear-ends another train in D.C. - kills several passengers

- Airplane drivers using laptops - fortunately nothing happened but it could have. A few years ago the same event caused a plane to miss a runway and killed most of the passengers.

I prefer to have my own car, with my own hands on the wheel, because I trust myself more than I trust some underpaid stranger. I'll take an airplane if it's long-distance, but if it's within 1-2 day's drive (Example Oklahoma City to Baltimore) then I'll just do it myself.

Re:Just Say No to publci transport (2, Insightful)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882877)

I prefer to have my own car, with my own hands on the wheel, because I trust myself more than I trust some underpaid stranger.

Slight flaw in your reasoning: what about all the other people on the road, a fair proportion of whom are bloody idiots who aren't even competent to operate a skateboard?

Just say no to poorly judging risk (5, Insightful)

jeffmeden (135043) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882925)

Funny, then, that the method of travel which you insist is the safest actually results in the most deaths per mile traveled... I am not saying anything about you *personally* but this kind of poor risk judgment is what leads to all kinds of bad decisions. From what type of travel to choose, to what kind of medical treatment to choose, we humans are absolutely TERRIBLE at properly weighing risk. Say what you will about the fallibility of statistics, we all stand to gain if people put a little more stock in sound science as opposed to emotion-driven decision making.

Autopilot... (0, Redundant)

Ba1der (84320) | more than 4 years ago | (#29882937)

I'm no pilot, nor flight-tech, so please correct me if I'm wrong, but modern passenger and cargo planes is capable of automatic take off, course corrections and landing, right? In my eyes, this is a good time to start discussing taking the human factor out of flying? Let the planes fly themself from takeoff to landing and keep the pilots along only as backup/supervisors, and only until peoples paranoia for autopilots has gone away. At least, start with the cargoplanes and test until deemed safe and then move to the rest.

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