According to an NTSB Advisory issued today, the NTSB is investigating an incident in which a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 overflew the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport (MSP), its intended destination. Apparently the flight departed San Diego and at 5:56 pm MDT became NORDO (no radio communications). At 7:58 pm CDT the aircraft flew over MSP and continued northeast for another 15 minutes (approximately 150 miles) until the MSP center controller was able to re-establish contact with the crew. The crew’s response? They were in a heated discussion over airline policy which distracted them and resulted in their loss of situational awareness. Since the NTSB lab will be reviewing the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) we should learn what, if anything, was actually said in that “heated discussion.”
Personally, this looks to me like a repeat of the February 13, 2008 go! flight 1002 incident in which the flight crew fell asleep and flew past their destination. The NTSB determined in that case that the probable cause of the incident was the captain and first officer inadvertently falling asleep during the cruise phase of flight with the captain’s undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea and the flight crew’s early-morning start times as contributing factors. If that is the case, it will only add more fuel to the NTSB’s August 7, 2009 Safety Recommendations A-09-61 through -66 addressing pilot fatigue and sleep apnea.
As I discussed in my post yesterday, you will definitely be hearing more about sleep apnea and pilot fatigue in the future. Hopefully the FAA’s response (and I fully expect a regulatory/rulemaking response from the FAA) will use some common sense. However, pilots who snore, or are overweight, or have high blood pressure, or have any of the other “risk factors” associated with sleep apnea, should beware. These issues are on the radar screen and will likely be the cause of additional frustration for airmen seeking medical certificates.