Jet flies 150 miles past destination in US; pilots say they were distracted

Friday, October 23, 2009

The MSP International Airport is one of the largest in the United States.

The National Transportation Safety Board of the United States, Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are all probing an incident in which a Northwest Airlines jet flew 150 miles past its destination.

The Airbus A320 was traveling from San Diego International Airport, San Diego, California with 147 passengers when it ceased to respond to radio communications as it flew through an area of sky controlled from Denver at 5:56 p.m. yesterday. It was passed on to Minneapolis as non-responsive and subsequently overflew the airport without changing altitude from its 37,000 foot cruising height.

Various controllers tried to contact the plane, some sending text messages, and the Federal Aviation Administration asked Northwest to get their dispatcher to hail the aircraft, but to no avail. Communications were reestablished 16 minutes after the plane passed the airport at 8:14 p.m. when controllers asked two other Northwest planes to try talking to the unresponsive jet.

Authorities had been so concerned of a possible hijacking that fighter jets were put on standby in Madison, Wisconsin and the crew were ordered to perform a set of maneuvers to prove they were in control of their aircraft before turning round and flying the 150 mile return trip to their intended destination at Minneapolis, where they landed at around 9 p.m.

The FBI and airport police both interviewed the flight crew after landing and were told the crew lost awareness of their location during "a heated discussion over airline policy," according to the safety board, which is going to conduct its own interviews. The board has also recovered the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, and both have been sent to Washington DC to be examined.

Authorities have indicated that they will also look into the possibility the crew had fallen asleep. Although rare, it is not unknown; last year a go! airliner flew 26 miles past its target airport in Hawaii before the crew woke up and made contact with controllers.