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October 23, 2009

NWA188: Perspective on Small Passive Mistakes

Thursday afternoon I had a lot of things going on and my routine was broken by events. They were all good. Instead of driving home I planned to meet my wife at the Honda dealership to deliver our car for maintenance. I had the rendezvous written in my planner, I had remarked on it in conversation, and I had exchanged texts with my wife confirming the plan.

Then I got in my car and followed my routine instead of my plan, drove the wrong way for 11 miles, realized on the exit ramp that I was driving home instead of to the dealerships. I reversed course, got back on the highway in the other direction, passed my job, and went over to the dealership. On the way back I called my wife when I was five minutes out from the dealership and told her I was back on course.

I got there a few minutes late, but it was really no big thing. Just human error. My good wife, who has seen and forgiven many foibles, took it in stride. No biggie.

I'd like to use this true story to consider Wednesday's path of Northwest flight 188. You can click on the map below to see the flight's ground track.

Reports are that the aircraft flew past the airport at high altitude; the flight controllers were unable to raise the flight on the radio. The crew got back in touch, descended and got back into the line of arrivals and landed. It takes a while to descend out of thirty-some thousand feet.

Back in the day, passengers sat in the back uninformed. When they were partially informed, it was a nuisance; see the hijacking scenes from 1937's Lost Horizon. Now the passengers have their GPS and their iPhones and their laptops connected to the onboard WiFi, and they think they know as much as the flight crew.

This was not a big deal. People were concerned; maybe something was amiss. All was well, and it ended well. We don't know what happened. The authorities will figure it out, but it seems like a lot of uninformed noise over a non-event.

It's not like he landed a 767 on a taxiway. That was Monday's event. (See James Fallows on the relative risk and media coverage).

These things have been happening for decades. People wonder how they persist in spite of all the modern techno bells and whistles. I'm not so sure they don't happen because of all the modern marvels, if we haven't become passive in the presence of assistive technology.

Final thought: the Northwest MSP flyby and the Delta 767-taxiway story actually involve the same airline, since the NWA-Delta merger. Which, ahem, is a bit of a stretch.


Anonymous said...

excellent review, too bad most people cannot see this in a calm reasonable manner.

Anonymous said...

I am an air traffic controller and I disagree with the "nonevent". We are calm and reasonable, but when an air carrier passes over its destination without being in contact with ATC for as long as NWA188, it's a problem.

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