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Distracted Pilots Claim They Weren’t Sleeping

According to the Wall Street Journal, federal investigators questioned the two pilots involved in last week’s bizarre incident that saw a Northwest flight overshoot its intended destination by 150 miles. While the full results of that questioning are not yet available, it appears the pilots told investigators they were not asleep, as many had assumed. Instead, sources say, the pilots are sticking to their initial story, in which they were deeply distracted by a heated debate over airline policy and simply lost track of time.

And as the investigation digs in, the napping theory appears to be losing steam. The Journal reports that “some pilots and safety experts who initially strongly suspected snoozing pilots are tempering their position in light of additional data. One new factor, for example, is that Delta has confirmed that the crew’s schedule that day wasn’t especially demanding. And fatigue experts have weighed in to note that the evening hours when the incident occurred typically don’t pose particular challenges for the internal body clocks of pilots.”

Further, “Pilots talk about sometimes getting into a psychological zone during cruise—when they are just monitoring systems and computers—that dulls the senses and can result in time confusion. Sophisticated flight-management computers and autopilots keep jets precisely on a predetermined course, adjust speeds and flash various signals on cockpit displays about any discrepancies. But according to pilots familiar with operations of the twin-engine Northwest plane, the crew wouldn’t have received any aural warnings that they had passed the point to begin a descent to land.”

One wrinkle in the ongoing probe is that “according to the recollections of the Northwest crew, a flight attendant’s question on the intercom demanding to know why the jetliner hadn’t started its descent startled them out of their distracted state, according to one person familiar with the matter. Controllers previously said a radio transmission from a nearby plane prompted the Northwest crew to resume communication with controllers.”

None of this, of course, does anything to dispel the confusion swirling around this incident. And, at least at this point, there seems to be little the pilots could say that would ward off charges of negligence. Whether napping or engrossed in conversation, the simple fact of a 150-mile miss is damning enough, and they have already been suspended. And anyway, which is worse: to be asleep as your destination passes by below, or awake? I’m not sure, though I can tell you neither option makes me very happy.

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