A heated discussion over airline policy, is the excuse two Northwest Airline pilots gave for flying 150 miles past its destination on the Wednesday night flight San Diego to Minneapolis. With 144 passengers and a crew of five the pilots dropped out of radio contact with controllers just before 7 p.m. CDT, when they were at 37,000 feet.
The Airbus A320 jet flew over the Minneapolis airport just before 8 p.m. and overshot it before communications were re-established at 8:14 p.m. By that time, the plane was hovering over Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Air traffic controllers in Denver had been in contact with the pilots as they flew over the Rockies, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. But as the plane got closer to Minneapolis, she said, “the Denver center tried to contact the flight but couldn’t get anyone.” That was just before 8 p.m.
Denver controllers notified their counterparts in Minneapolis, who also tried to reach the crew without success.
Controllers suspected that Flight 188′s radio may still have been tuned to a frequency used by Denver controllers even though the plane had flown beyond the reach of that region’s controllers, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Union. Controllers worked throughout the incident with the pilots of other planes, asking them to try to raise Flight 188 using the Denver frequency, he said.
That was unsuccessful until two other pilots working with Minneapolis controllers finally got through just before the plane turned around, Church said. Minneapolis controllers don’t have the capability of using the Denver frequency, but pilots do, he said.
A flight attendant in the cabin also was able to contact them by intercom, said a source close to the investigation who wasn’t authorized to talk publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
After re-establishing contact with the plane, controllers asked the pilot in charge to execute a series of turns to show he was in control of the aircraft, Church said.
“Controllers have a heightened sense of vigilance when we’re not able to talk to an aircraft. That’s the reality post-9/11,” he said.
Investigators don’t know yet whether the pilots may have fallen asleep, but fatigue and cockpit distraction will be looked into, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said Friday.
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