Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Monitoring What’s Going On


Managing pilot workload


The pilots told investigators that they hadn’t fallen asleep. They said that two hours into the flight, a flight attendant brought meals to the cockpit. During that time, the captain took a lavatory break. For security reasons, the lead flight attendant stayed in the cockpit while the captain was absent. The first officer didn’t leave the cockpit during the flight.

After eating, the pilots began conversing about the current preferential bidding system for crew scheduling. Delta’s bidding system had been adopted after the Northwest and Delta merger. Both pilots characterized the system as confusing, and reported that their discussions concerned the captain’s bid results for November. His results required him to commute to Minneapolis more often than in the past. The captain said that he pulled out his laptop to show the first officer his bid results. The first officer also pulled out his laptop. Both pilots stated that the first officer was tutoring the captain on the bidding system and process. The captain said the discussion lasted about 15 minutes.

The pilots stated that their first indication of anything unusual with the flight was when they received a call from a flight attendant asking about their arrival. The captain said that he then looked down at his multifunction control and display unit, and saw that there was no flight plan information depicted. Then, the captain looked at his navigation display and saw Duluth to his left and Eau Claire to his right.

The captain, age 53, held an ATP certificate with airplane multi-engine land, Boeing 727 and Airbus A320 ratings; a commercial pilot certificate with airplane single-engine land and sea ratings; and a flight engineer certificate (turbojet). He held a first-class medical certificate with the restriction that he “shall possess glasses for near/intermediate vision.” According to airline records, he had 18,641 hours, of which 8,196 hours were as pilot in command.

The first officer, age 54, held an ATP certificate with airplane multi-engine land, Boeing 727 and Airbus A320 (second in command only) ratings and a flight engineer certificate (turbojet). He held a first-class medical certificate with the restriction that he “must have available glasses for near vision.” According to airline records, he had 13,811 hours, of which 5,345 hours were as second in command in the A320.

The NTSB concluded that the first officer acknowledged but never completed an assigned radio frequency change due to interruptions, likely during the time that the flight attendant was in the cockpit and the captain was absent. Not complying with the ATC handoff was contrary to FARs and airline procedures. The NTSB also concluded that the controllers didn’t follow procedures to ensure the flight was on the correct frequency, which delayed the identification of the flight as “no radio.” Investigators found that ATC management didn’t notify everyone they should have notified, in a timely manner, about the loss of contact with the flight. The Safety Board said that the FAA doesn’t have national standardized procedures in use by ATC when flights are transferred from sector to sector using automation.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this incident was the flight crew’s failure to monitor the airplane’s radio, instruments and flight progress after becoming distracted by conversations and activities unrelated to the operation of the flight.



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