Many a person has missed their stop on a bus or train at one time or another because they were engrossed in a weighty conversation or a book. But when the pilots of Northwest Airlines flight 188 became distracted, it had more serious consequences. They overflew their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles.
"They were in a heated discussion over airline policy and they lost situational awareness," the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.
When the pilots got their "situational awareness" back, they turned the Airbus A320 around and landed it safely on Wednesday evening, apparently without any of the 144 passengers realising they had taken a roundabout route.
Ground controllers lost contact with the pilots just before 7pm and radio contact was not re-established for more than an hour. The Federal Aviation Administration notified the military, which put fighter jets on alert at two locations.
The flight was scheduled to land at 8.01 p.m. local time but eventually arrived at 9.15 p.m., according to Ed Stewart, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines, which owns Northwest.
Delta has suspended the pilots while it carries out an investigation, and the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were being sent to Washington for analysis.
Federal officials are investigating whether pilot fatigue played a role. An NTSB spokesman, Keith Holloway, said the idea that the crew may have fallen asleep was "speculative".
Andrea Allmon, who was travelling from San Diego on business, said no one knew anything was amiss until the end of the flight, when police boarded. © Guardian News & Media 2009