Northwest Pilots and the FAA: Snoozing or Cruising?
Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 at 1:40pm
The Case of the Northwest Pilots keeps getting funnier and funnier. Of course, it wouldn't be one bit amusing if it had happened to me, but as Woody Allen once said, when I get a hangnail, it's tragedy; when you fall down the stairs, it's comedy. Or maybe it wasn't Woody Allen. Maybe it was Paul Allen. Or Herb. Sorry. Just thinking about those two in the cockpit doing... what was it they were doing?... makes my mind wander.
As you know, original speculation was that the pilots were taking their semi-approved staggered naps simultaneously. This made sense to me. Flying one of those big planes is almost as boring as running a business meeting. Once the thing is up in the air, you set the automatic controls, lean back and wait for it to be over. It's my estimate that fully 63% of all business people have at one time or another copped a parcel of Z's when the gears of the machine were grinding. Why shouldn't pilots? Okay, I can think of a lot of reasons why not and I'm sure you can too. But the idea that these guys slept through their wake up alarm and allowed their enormous vehicle to drift over the landing zone didn't seem far-fetched.
Yesterday I heard that the somnolence theory has now been supplanted by the story that the two were cruising the web and lost track of the time. This summons up a couple of images to my mind. I'm thinking they weren't just Googling. I'm willing to bet that if they were online, it was some kind of World of Warcraft thing. As good as YouTube or Wikipedia might be, you don't lose yourself in it the way you do when a Orc is about to hammer in your brain pan and send you back sixteen levels. There they are, 37,000 feet up, a planeful of people behind them, whacking away at their joysticks in some digital dungeon? I can buy that. In the days I was addicted to DOOM, I used to spend the entire night blasting away at hideous monsters, so in the zone that I didn't realize that the sun had risen until my wife came in to tell me it was time to go to work. So maybe that's what they were doing when they were out of touch for 78 minutes. As an explanation, it still seems pretty lame to me. Maybe one was sleeping and the other was earning experience points as a Zarkon warrior or something like that.
Anyway you slice it, though, it points to a breakdown in the system somewhere. Now it turns out it wasn't just the snoozy (boozy?) gamer/pilot dudes who are in hot water. The air traffic controllers and the FAA, which is supposed to regulate such things, were egregiously late in notifying the military of the wayward Northwest flight to Minneapolis. The information that a flight has essentially gone out of the blue and into the black is supposed to be conveyed in about 10 minutes time. It took at least 40 minutes for the news to be conveyed upward to the guys who monitor our skies. Doesn't generate a whole lot of confidence, does it?
All of this is capped off by the news that the pilot's union is unhappy with the fact that the FAA has revoked the licenses of the pilots in question and is now preparing a response. I'll be interested to see it.