Northwest Airlines, Amelia Earhart, and 'balloon boy'

The connection is whimsical. But flying is serious business, especially when passengers are aboard. And why did those Northwest pilots wander so far past Minneapolis?

By , Staff writer

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    The Minneapolis skyline rises through the rain as an arriving Northwest Airlines jet taxis at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Friday. Investigators are looking into a Northwest flight bound for Minneapolis from San Diego which over flew the airport by 150 miles.
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Flying is in the air these days. (Sorry!)

Aviation authorities are investigating how two Northwest Airlines pilots could have overshot their destination by 150 miles before returning to land in Minneapolis Wednesday night. There’s a new biopic out about pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart. And the mom of “balloon boy” -- the youngster who, as it turned out, did not get whisked into the sky by a contraption his dad had built -- now admits that it was all a hoax aimed at winning the family’s own reality TV show.

As a one-time aviator (ex-Navy tailhooker), I’m drawn to flying news and stories. Some of my squadron mates became airline pilots after we got back from Vietnam. My parents flew an open-cockpit biplane out of Wisconsin farm fields back in the 1930s, and my father once met Amelia Earhart. A few years back, I helped a guy fly his small, single-engine Cessna from southern Africa to central Alaska, a unique two-month adventure to be sure.

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The connections here are whimsical, brought to earth by the seriousness of staying aloft due to a combination of technology (the basic physics have never changed), thorough training, and sometimes a bit of luck. Serious business, especially when passengers are involved.

Amelia Earhart pushed the edge of the aerodynamic envelope, crashing more than once. (The new movie has been widely panned.) Balloon boy’s family effort turns out to be a pathetic and probably illegal quest for publicity, barely getting airborne before falling to earth ignominiously.

But the Northwest Airlines story is another matter, and several days after the event questions continue to mount.

The president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, Bill Voss, said "It is a plausible explanation that both pilots simply fell asleep," reports the Portland Examiner.

In an interview with the Associated Press, first officer Richard Cole denies that.

"All I'm saying is we were not asleep," Cole said. "We were not having a fight; there was nothing serious going on in the cockpit that would threaten the people in the back at all. ... It was not a serious event, from a safety issue. I can't go into it, but it was innocuous."

Well, there’s nothing innocuous about commercial aviation when ground controllers fail to make contact for more than an hour and when the Air National Guard in Wisconsin was getting ready to launch fighter jets to intercept Northwest Flight 188. Those 144 passengers and three cabin crew members were counting on the pilots to get them to their scheduled destination safely and (if at all possible) on time.

As the Monitor’s Mark Trumbull reported, aviation authorities are examining issues of pilot professionalism in this and other recent cases involving apparent lapses in performance.

Aviation authorities expect to have more to say about the incident on Monday. Meanwhile, they’re examining the cockpit voice recorder, which in this case is essentially just a 30-minute tape loop. Too bad. The world would love to hear that "heated discussion" the pilots say distracted them.

Whatever happened in the cockpit, the pilots were acting more like passengers -- chatting away and maybe taking a snooze -- than those responsible for flying the aircraft. And that can never be a good thing.

Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who successfully landed a crippled airliner in the frigid waters of the Hudson River last January, has a new book out. It’s called "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters."

I’m thinking there’s a pair of Northwest Airlines pilots who ought to read it.

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