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Transportation Software Technology

Lost Northwest Pilots Were Trying Out New Software 518

Posted by timothy
from the so-they-say dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that two Northwest Airlines pilots who flew about 110 miles past their destination to the skies over Wisconsin as more than a dozen air-traffic controllers in three locations tried to get the plane's attention had taken out their personal laptops in the cockpit, a violation of airline policy, so the first officer could tutor the captain in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last fall. 'Both said they lost track of time,' said an interim report from the National Transportation Safety Board countering theories in aviation circles that the two pilots might have fallen asleep or were arguing in the cockpit. 'Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots' command of the aircraft during flight,' said a statement from Delta Airlines, 'is strictly against the airline's flight deck policies and violations of that policy will result in termination.' Industry executives and analysts said the pilots' behavior was a striking lapse for such veteran airmen who have a total of 31,000 flying hours of experience between them. In the case of Flight 188, 'Neither pilot was aware of the airplane's position until a flight attendant called about five minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival,' the interim report said."
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Lost Northwest Pilots Were Trying Out New Software

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  • Luck not shot down (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Smegly (1607157) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:24AM (#29882355)
    At todays fear of terrorism levels, they are lucky its just job termination - if they had flown over some sensitive and/or military area they could have been shot down... or not?
    • by Ogive17 (691899) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:38AM (#29882461)
      They don't just shoot down planes if they venture into a restricted area. If radio contact fails, they then try to get visual contact. I imagine the pilots in the cockpit would notice an F-16 flying just outside the window.

      I bet shooting down the plane would be a last resort, if the plane was on a collision course with a "sensitive" target. Likely the fighters would escort the passenger jet for awhile trying to gather as much information as possible.
    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      The TV news said DHS greeted them when they landed.

    • by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:58AM (#29882625) Journal

      No. A shootdown would have been nearly impossible in this situation. This was stupid, and both pilots should and probably will be terminated over it, but the passengers were never in any real danger.

      The initial theory at ATC on this was probably that they had a radio failure. Radios fail, so there are procedures to deal with it. 110 mile overshoot at aircraft speeds probably means they were out of radio contact for 15-20 minutes of flight time after passing their destination. ATC was probably still working down through their checklist while dealing with the rest of the radio traffic at the same time. The aircraft has lots of reserve fuel as per FAA regs, and the plane was following its assigned flight path (a little longer than scheduled, but it wasn't going whacko, so the assumption might have been that the crew had a radio or other mechanical issue and were trying to deal with it).

      ATC obviously verified that their flight path was clear, which put a tad more load on them, but they were at cruising altitude and there's plenty of room up in Class A airspace. And if they had flown over something sensitive enough to have a restricted zone up at 37,000 feet (which would be exceptionally rare, most MOAs only extend up to class A airspace, not into it), the military would have scrambled a couple of fighters to pay them a visit. If they didn't notice the fighters themselves, I'm sure some passenger would alert a stewardess and the pilots would have jumped on the emergency band in a big fat effing hurry, or if they really had a radio out watched for the wings to waggle and followed them to a runway. It's hard to miss a fighter 20 feet off your nose, and those guys are pretty damned good at getting close enough to be noticed without inducing turbulence.

      I imagine a few people at ATC were just starting to get worried, since it could also be crew incapacitation (fun facts to know and tell - if you lock the very reinforced flight door from the crew side and both crewmembers die or become incapacitated, you're pretty much screwed - no Patrick Swayze bad movie moments of private pilots landing the plane at their favorite airstrip causing fun and mayhem but saving lives - just simple fuel starvation and uncontrolled descent into terrain). I'm sure there was the sound of a few strained sphincters unclenching when Dumb and Dumber got on the horn and acknowledged that they were simply distracted.

      This was incredibly dumb, and deserves termination or at least a very, VERY strong reprimand, but at no time were the passengers in any danger.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by maxume (22995)

        An early report I saw stated that air traffic guided them through some maneuvers before they landed, to ensure that they still had control of the plane (apparently standard procedure in such a situation).

        • by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:31AM (#29882955) Journal

          ATC would have guided them through maneuvers anyway, so I'm sure that's true. They would have had to receive and acknowledge a new course back to the airport control area, and a descent path to pattern.

          But, yeah, it wouldn't surprise me if they had the aircraft execute a few turns first to make absolutely sure they had the correct aircraft and that the pilots could comprehend and execute instructions. I've never heard of the procedure, but I'm only a private pilot and the few times I've used flight following I've managed to keep positive radio contact at all times.

          And the maneuvers served another purpose. Time building. After all, since this was probably their last flight the pilots might as well make the most of it and log as much PIC time as they can... and, hey, they know how to use the new scheduling system now, so they can clearly see that they don't have any flights coming up in the near future.

          I just read a more thorough FAA report on the incident, and it seems they were out of contact for about an hour, and other pilots on other aircraft where assisting trying different frequencies. Pilots do lose contact with ATC from time to time when up in Class A airspace, but this one was probably VERY close to the point where they'd scramble a couple of fast intercept planes to go check things out.

          • by greyhueofdoubt (1159527) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @11:07AM (#29884083) Homepage Journal

            Minnesota Air National Guard here-

            (Just for your own information)
            We were on alert standby throughout the event; that is to say, we knew about it and kept in contact with norad and the mpls atc, and our pilots were suited up. Had a scramble been declared, we probably would have intercepted the airliner within 20 minutes unless Madison got there first. Wouldn't be the first time this has happened.

            -b

            • by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @12:35PM (#29885243) Journal

              Thanks. Good to hear from someone that might have counted, if it had come to that. Glad to know you folks are on the job.

              Equally glad you could stay on the ground for this one, of course. :)

      • by Albanach (527650) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @10:14AM (#29883439) Homepage

        The aircraft has lots of reserve fuel as per FAA regs

        I was wondering about this given the cost pressures on airlines these days. The FAA website says this:

        A. Required Fuel Supplies for Flights with Alternate Airports. When the Regulations require an alternate airport for the destination to be designated on the release, the aircraft must have the following types and increments of fuel on board at takeoff:

        1. En Route Fuel. That fuel necessary for a flight to reach the airport to which it is released and then to conduct one instrument approach and a possible missed approach.
        2. Alternate Fuel. That fuel necessary for a flight to fly from the point of completion of the missed approach at the destination airport to the most distant alternate airport, make an IFR approach (if the forecast indicates such conditions will exist), and then complete a landing.
        3. International Reserve Fuel. That fuel necessary in addition the en route and alternate fuel increments for the flight thereafter to fly for 30 minutes.
        4. En Route Reserve. The additional fuel necessary for the flight thereafter, to fly 15% of the total time required to fly at normal cruising fuel consumption to the airports specified in previous subparagraphs 1) and 2) or to fly for 90 minutes at normal cruising fuel consumption (whichever is less).
        5. Contingency Fuel. That increment of fuel necessary for the flight to compensate for any known traffic delays and to compensate for any other condition that may delay the landing of the flight.

        So they need enough additional fuel to fly 15% of the time required to reach the furthest alternate airport taking into account traffic delays and other factors that might delay the landing.

        I think it's safe to say that they'd have plenty of fuel in this jaunt, where they extended the flight by 300 miles (round trip). Still, if alternate airports were relatively close, and had they not been disturbed by that member of cabin crew, I guess it's possible they could have been landing on a rural strip that doesn't see many A320s?

        Any pilots able to tell us just how far they could get if they had been carrying the minimum fuel allowed by law?

        • by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @12:18PM (#29885019) Journal

          I may be misunderstanding your wording, so we may be agreeing vehemently here..

          Any alternate airport is not going to be a rural strip, this is a Part 115 flight which means they need a manned tower to legally land unless overriding safety concerns apply. "Alternate airport" does not mean "gotta get on the effing ground now where's a strip of tarmac or a long stretch of highway", it means another airport with sufficient capacity for a routine landing of the aircraft in question, including the ability to handle the passengers and sufficient emergency equipment to handle trouble. So the alternate is probably not terribly close to the main airport (though I don't know what they'd pick as an alternate on that flight), and the landing is going to be pretty routine (if in an inconvenient location for the passengers on board).

          I've been diverted due to traffic (En Route Reserve exaustion), and basically it went like this:
          1. Thunderstorm over destination airport (CVG), traffic backed up.
          2. Entered pattern way the hell up in the air, started working down the stack.
          3. Pilot used up "En Route" and "En Route Reserve" and started digging into "Contingency Fuel" due to heavy traffic (stacked pattern). Pilot announced that we needed to divert and started the clock on "Alternate Fuel" to get to the alternate airport. We were 15 minutes or so from getting landing clearance based on where we were in the pattern, BUT we were out of Contingency Fuel and En Route Reserve, and so we had to divert to Alternate because if we had been delayed any longer AND THEN had to go to Alternate we would have been deeply screwed.
          4. Flew to Toledo, landed. Note that this was probably the CLOSEST alternate, and I'm sure we had a good chunk of Alternate fuel left. Airport looked different, but it was a normal landing.
          5. Refueled. No one allowed off plane because we all wanted to get to CVG soonest and a deplane/replane would have cost time.
          6. Waited an hour on the tarmac in Toledo for CVG traffic to normalize again.
          7. Flew back to CVG, landed, taxiied to different gate since we were off schedule.
          8. Thankfully I had a 2.5 hour layover and made my connector.

          En-route Reserve and Contingency fuel are in addition to En Route and Alternate fuel. I don't have that section of the FAR/AIM in front of me at the moment and don't have time to look it up, but I think the International reserve is an international standard, and not just for international flights. However, let's assume it does not apply.

          Assuming they picked their most distant alternate 1 hour away, and the flight is 3h 45m long (approximately what the Delta Flight Status page calls for).

          En Route: about 4 hours, including a missed approach of 15 minutes.
          Alternate: 1 hour. Total 5 hours.
          En Route Reserve: 15% of 5 hours, 45 minutes. Since that's less than 90, we use that. Total is now 5:45.
          Contingency: For a busy airport, add an hour. Let's assume they added a ridiculously low 15 minutes to save fuel weight. Total is now 6:00

          So we have an approximate 6 hours of fuel on board for a less-than-4-hour flight. Maybe 6:30 if #3 applied.

          So assuming 15 minutes to discover their mistake and 15 minutes to fly back, Dumb and Dumber used 2/3 of their En Route Reserve, and didn't touch their Alternate or Contingency fuel levels at all. In other words, the flight was made within FAA fuel regs, if not within Delta CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) regs or within the boundaries of common sense.

          And yes, they are all in the same fuel tank (grin). But you burn them for the purpose for which they are intended. If you are out of En Route Reserve and Contingency, then you NEED to head straight for your nearest practical (weather, traffic, and other factors considered) Alternate airport right now so you arrive with plenty of fuel to make a safe landing there.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Fishbulb (32296)

        This was a dumb thing, for sure, but think about it from a pilot's perspective; even a little screwup will land you on the news across the nation.

        Kinda reminds me of this quote:

        Goaltender is a normal job. Sure. How would you like it if at your job, every time you made the slightest mistake a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?" - Jaques Plante

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by JWSmythe (446288)

        if you lock the very reinforced flight door from the crew side and both crewmembers die or become incapacitated, you're pretty much screwed

        There was some crappy TV show on recently that showed how to survive a disaster. What if something happened to the pilots (or if terrorists got into the cockpit). Some crappy scenario where someone in the passenger space needed to get into the pilot space because of an emergency.

        They suggested taking the drink cart, and loading it up with absolutely as much stuff as yo

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:27AM (#29882377) Journal
    I knew vista takes forever to boot, and so I am not surprised it took the first officer some 20 minutes to start the tutoring session. Also the boot has cool graphics splash screen and I could imagine the pilots being engrossed and entranced by the splash screen. But it is news to me it will also freeze all electronics within vicinity. I know the vista WiFi setup tries really hard to find any possible router in the vicinity and blasts the surrounding space with all sorts of radiation hoping to get a positive response from a router.

    But it is news to me, it can commandeer aircraft radios and navigational aids within vicinity and convert them into a giant Wi-Fi range extenders.

    • by upuv (1201447)

      It was bloody windows 7.

      I would hope a Pilot was smarter than that to use Vista Yeesh!

      I'm guessing Malware infection from Delta hub slowed the whole thing down.

  • Yep! (Score:3, Funny)

    by thogard (43403) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:27AM (#29882379) Homepage

    Yep. Thats my story and I'm sticking to it. I wasn't sleeping. I wasn't browsing the web. I was using the future of cockpit aviation.

  • Who would run out of fuel first, the laptop or the plane?

    Or the coffee.

  • Radio Reception? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Iskender (1040286) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:30AM (#29882399)

    Shouldn't they have picked up air traffic control yelling at them regardless? I'm guessing they had their headphones off (if such are even used), but I would think that there would be blinking lights at a minimum, and hopefully any voices would come through. If nothing else, they should be tuned into some kind of emergency frequency no matter what.

    It seems to me something is either designed wrong, or the pilots were being much more inattentive than one would expect from even someone using a laptop.

    Any pilots or other I am a somethings around?

    • Re:Radio Reception? (Score:4, Informative)

      by smooth wombat (796938) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:42AM (#29882493) Homepage Journal
      I'm guessing they had their headphones off (if such are even used),

      I happened to hear this morning on CNN that the pilots indicated they had removed their headphones, which is a reason not to hear the airport calling for their attention. They also said they did not see any messages from the home office trying to get their attention but did hear general conversations on the radio.

      P.S. Your comment is number 3 on Google if you search for 'Northwest pilots headphones'.
    • Re:Radio Reception? (Score:5, Informative)

      by mysidia (191772) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:43AM (#29882505)

      “Both said they lost track of time,” the report stated. It also said that the pilots had heard voices over their cockpit radios but ignored them.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by upuv (1201447)

      Nope. Each control zone has a unique frequency.

      However since they were on their laptops if someone had sent them an IM, Twitter, or email they would have probably been alright.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by JustOK (667959)

        So that means the ATC did NOT use all available means to try to contact the pilots. Interesting.

    • by v1 (525388) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:51AM (#29882571) Homepage Journal

      Shouldn't they have picked up air traffic control yelling at them regardless?

      Would have to assume they took off the headphones so they could hear each other as they discussed the computer app. I don't think there's a speaker in the cockpit from the tower.

      Two questions come to mind:

      1) what sort of urgency was placed on learning this new system? Were they being rushed? Did anyone suggest they hurry up and get each other up to speed on the app ("as soon as possible"/"whenever you get a chance"?) and they simply didn't have any personal time left to do it? (things like this tend to get pushed to be done on personal, rather than paid, time)
      2) 110 miles in a jet? really? big detour? How long does it take a jet to travel 110 miles? This extended the flight what, a whole 15 minutes counting backtrack time? For a jet that's like a bus driver missing an exit and having to drive another 4 miles to the next cloverleaf and do a 180. Though it probably had a few more exaggerated side-effects, like passengers missing connecting flights (which happens too much anyway even when planes are on time) plus the cost of a few hundred pounds of fuel. But still, seems like its being overblown.

      • by baaa (157342) <bruno @ a f onso.info> on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:41AM (#29883067)

        I am an ex-IT engineer turned airline pilot (currently flying Airbus A320) so will bite and explain some items...

        1. there are loudspeakers in the cockpit, usually the volume is at mid-level, but you choose the volume you want
        2. it takes about 10m to fly 80 miles, so 110miles of course would mean they were engaged in the discussion for some 25m (10m from Top of Descent plus the 110m after destination)
        3. You normally keep an ear out for someone calling you in the radio, but sometimes you just might miss it. I concede that 30m without listening to air traffic control is too much...
        4. Their timing was all wrong... Near top of descent turning on their laptops?? Come on...... It's one of the only 2 situations were you really must have full attention, Takeoff until Top of Climb and from Top of Descent to Landing....
        5. There is an automatic system called TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoiding System) that would warn them if there was any chance of colliding with another aircraft. This system is mandatory (at least in Europe) and is why those 2 aircraft over Brazil collided some years ago.
        6. In what regards to fuel, you take fuel to fly to destination + fuel to fly from destination to alternate landing + 30m holding at alternate + whatever your airline policy sees fit + whatever captain decision sees fit. They probably landed short on fuel to fly to destination, but there are procedures in place for this.
        7. Normally there are allways 2 radion frequencies in use, the area you are in and the emergency frequency. Also, some airplanes have HF frequencies and can be called over HF. This will sound a buzzer in the cockpit and is quite loud.I doubt ATC called them over HF....
        8. Autopilot was obviously on, but it doesn't beep when reaching Top of Descent...
        9. Firing them is a bit excessive, but some sort of disciplinary action should be taken. Do not forget that training a pilot costs above 100kUSD, so it is not immediate to find a replacement. Also it is easy to just appoint blame, but keep in mind that aviation is not like your regular day job. There is no excuse for what happened here but the mentality of "you erred, you're fired" will cause problems in the future.....

        B

        • by thenet411 (993531) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @11:06AM (#29884061)
          I'm a Network Engineer and a private pilot working toward ATP and I hear what you're saying with all 9 of your points. The pilots honestly expect us to believe that they took out their laptops and were so distracted by what they were doing that they lost track of time. No, sir. I don't buy it. This simply does not happen. Pilots are some of the most methodical and anal retentive people on the face of the planet. Taking time away from the duty of flying the aircraft (especially a large airliner with over 100 people onboard) simply doesn't happen unless the pilots are incapacitated. Yes, computers do much of the mundane work but the pilots are responsible for always triple-checking the aircraft's computers with respect to navigation, fuel state, engine performance, and a host of other factors that keep them busy. Even if one of the pilots took out his laptop for some reason (Showing off Windows 7?) the other pilot never would have done the same. As for missing the radio calls, you know as well as I do that not long after the flight is airborne, the non-PIC has trained their hearing to pick out his/her flight number from the ATC traffic like it was their mother's name. No sir, they were asleep. We all know the problems commercial pilots face. Long hours, little pay, waking up at 3:30am to open Starbucks and then jumping into the cockpit of an RJ at 9am. Pilot fatigue is reaching a critical stage and I believe this is just the beginning of events like this. Granted, both pilots falling asleep is going to be rare, but having at least one pilot taking a power nap in the cockpit is fairly common.
          • by Spliffster (755587) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @12:53PM (#29885505) Homepage Journal

            Let's see how you see this after 10 Years of commercial flying. My Brother is captain on an A320 for many years now. The problem is boredom. Most of those pilots are over-achiever until they have the job they want. And from then on, they have too much time while doing their jobs. Most of them start doing their office work in the cockpit, play games, watch movies, etc.

            I don't want to say that the "computer thing" wasn't a silly excuse for something else, but think about it, most of them are so bored by their job that they start doing stupid things after some years (especially when they also have a lot of routine on the routes they fly every day).

            Cheers,
            -S

        • by Scrameustache (459504) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @11:47AM (#29884651) Homepage Journal

          I am an ex-IT engineer turned airline pilot (currently flying Airbus A320)

          Dude, did you learn nothing from this story? Don't post to slashdot when you're flying!It'll get you in trouble! ;-)

  • WTF? (Score:5, Funny)

    by rts008 (812749) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:30AM (#29882403) Journal

    They were raiding in WoW, I would imagine. ;-)

    "Tutoring in the new scheduling software", my ass.

  • by doug141 (863552) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:31AM (#29882417)

    will need to know how to use the new scheduling system now!

  • by new death barbie (240326) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:32AM (#29882421)

    They were SO engrossed they neglected to respond to repeated attempts at contact for OVER AN HOUR? They weren't learning a new scheduling system.

    They were on a WoW raid, more like.

    • Re:Oh, puhlease (Score:5, Interesting)

      by upuv (1201447) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:47AM (#29882539) Journal

      Each air traffic control region has an alternate frequency. So yah if they didn't bother to change the frequency they were on they wouldn't hear squat.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Tracy Reed (3563)

        I am a pilot also. If I don't hear something on frequency after a certain period of time I get worried and check in. I have never gone a whole hour without hearing something.

        Once I had a radio failure in Class B over LAX while talking to SoCal on the way north from San Diego. I could hear other pilots in the air but couldn't hear ATC. I was on a vector to avoid traffic heading mostly west out to sea (they had assigned me a temporary heading) instead of heading north to my destination. A couple minutes passe

  • Since most planes, to my knowledge, have auto pilot, and I'm assuming it was set, isn't there something with autopilot that would have also alerted the pilots to their location and time. I understand that pilots would have had time to discuss this stuff, but I almost believe that losing track of time is a big offense. What would have happened had they had fuel issues and now they were running out of fuel?

    If I was on that flight I would likely be pissed off knowing that these two who hold the responsibilit

    • by upuv (1201447) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:45AM (#29882529) Journal

      Some fancy auto pilots will alert when the flight vector has been achieved.

      However most autopilots in a basic mode will simply just make sure a plane maintains heading and elevation. For I think all of US air space this basic autopilot is all that is needed as the US is basically one big highway in the sky where planes simply plop them selves in a sky lane and follow it. None of this fancy find me the fastest route and make sure I don't hit anything else sorta autopilot.

      US air space is basically running as if it was 1960 still. You wouldn't fly if you saw what the majority of airports was using for radar :)

  • or Linux?

    We may never know.

  • It's a tough job (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jamie (78724) * Works for Slashdot

    Obviously the pilots should have paid more attention, but I suspect the reason they were trying to squeeze in a little extra work is that they weren't going to get paid to learn the scheduling system on their own time.

    Pilots go through years of expensive schooling and have to repay their student loans like everyone else. Their salaries start around $20,000 [salon.com] if they can get hired in a very competitive market.

    Remember the hero pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson, saving Flight 1549 and 155 people's li [mercurynews.com]

    • Re:It's a tough job (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:56AM (#29882611)

      I'm sorry but that's just crap. New pilots, sure, they make less, but on *AVERAGE* the pay is around $70k.
      http://www.avjobs.com/salaries-wages-pay/pilot-pay.asp

      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:31AM (#29882957)

        I'm sorry but that's just crap. New pilots, sure, they make less, but on *AVERAGE* the pay is around $70k. http://www.avjobs.com/salaries-wages-pay/pilot-pay.asp [avjobs.com]

        Yeah, GP is full of BS. No stats, just single anecdotal sob stories. From a list of overpaid jobs [marketwatch.com]:

        9) Major airline pilots

        While American and United pilots recently took pay cuts, senior captains earn as much as $250,000 a year at Delta, and their counterparts at other major airlines still earn about $150,000 to $215,000 - several times pilot pay at regional carriers - for a job that technology has made almost fully automated.

        By comparison, senior pilots make up to 40 percent less at low-fare carriers like Jet Blue and Southwest, though some enjoy favorable perks like stock options. That helps explain why their employers are profitable while several of the majors are still teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

        The pilot's unions are the most powerful in the industry. They demand premium pay as if still in the glory days of long-gone Pan Am and TWA, rather than the cutthroat, deregulated market of under-$200 coast-to-coast roundtrips. In what amounts to a per-passenger commission, the larger the plane, the more they earn - even though it takes little more skill to pilot a jumbo jet. It's as much the airplane mechanics who hold our fate in their hands.

        The mechanics are the ones that really get the short end of the stick. But they don't have expensive schooling.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by KylePflug (898555)

          What you need to get is that to make Senior Captain, you need seniority. Not skill, experience, recommendations, or flight time. 100% seniority. And if you ever are laid off and change airlines, you start over at the bottom of the paygrade. So yes, some old guys make a shit-ton of money, but it's next to impossible to break into the industry, military or not, because everyone else (cargo pilots, regional airline pilots, corporate pilots) are paid very little considering the debt, demands of the schedule, an

        • by jamie (78724) * Works for Slashdot <jamie@slashdot.org> on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @10:23AM (#29883523) Journal

          HAH! "for a job that technology has made almost fully automated... the larger the plane, the more they earn - even though it takes little more skill to pilot a jumbo jet."

          $200K for the decades of training and experience to know what to do when one of the world's more complicated machines breaks, a mile in the air, with 200 souls on board. "Overpaid"? What a jackass.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by GameboyRMH (1153867)
            I totally agree...I think it's terrible that many airline pilots are only making low/mid 5 digits a year. Seriously. The training isn't cheap or short and the hours aren't humane.

            I see that real estate agents are on the list; I have one in my family, and while it doesn't require a great deal of training, any agent that is making a lot is going to be on call and working literally any time they are awake or can be awakened by the incessant ringing of their cell phone. Rich douchebags may call on a Saturday
        • by LordSnooty (853791) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @11:02AM (#29884027)

          for a job that technology has made almost fully automated.

          Wot a load of pish. Yeah, it's a job that's fully automated - until the shit goes down and the automation suddenly cannot cope with 'out-of-the-envelope' conditions. You think a machine could have landed Sully's jet safely following a bird strike?

      • by Shivetya (243324) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:37AM (#29883019) Homepage Journal

        that on this site we have so many people who believe Michael Moore?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by jamie (78724) * Works for Slashdot

          His latest movie isn't compelling, and his fact-checkers fell down on the job this time around. It's barely even entertaining. I don't recommend it. That doesn't mean what he reports is untrue -- he talked to these guys, he saw a pay stub.

          (Previous efforts have been much more enlightening and educational. I do recommend Columbine, Fahrenheit, and especially Sicko.)

      • Re:It's a tough job (Score:4, Informative)

        by MatchstickMaker (1553809) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @10:17AM (#29883467)
        I would imagine that the $70k average figure includes captains with the major airlines that have 20+ years of experience who are making $150k per year, but unfortunately their salaries are retiring with them. Not long ago I was thinking about a career change and flying seemed like a great job, but as I researched I found that for the first 5-10 years pilots make around $20k. My bank account can't handle that kind of pay cut. Airline pilots are severely overworked and underpaid and are responsible for hundreds of lives a day.
    • by Ephemeriis (315124) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:59AM (#29882635)

      This all seems to be true, in general, of most industries these days.

      Folks are generally expected to work longer than 40 hours, but not actually compensated for it. Your workload will virtually necessitate coming into the office early, or working through lunch, or staying late... They'll roll out new procedures or tools or toys, but there's no time allotted for training - you're expected to learn it before or after actual work hours. And the pay for those 40 hours that you are compensated for, is going down. Maybe not literally... Maybe you didn't actually take a pay cut (though plenty of people are)... But your wages aren't keeping up with bills/inflation/whatever.

      This isn't only true in the airline industry. I'm seeing it in my own little corner of the IT world - not just my own job and work hours, but those of my co-workers as well.

  • So if they were discussing this new piece of software and using laptops, presumably you can hear all that on the cockpit voice recorder. As opposed to say, sleeping, which may or may not sound like snoring or nothing at all.
    • by nharmon (97591) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:51AM (#29882567) Homepage

      The CVP on this aircraft only records the last 30 minutes of conversation. So what they have is roughly from just before final approach to parking at the gate.

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      Except there was no crash to turn it off, so it will have just kept recording and it is on a 30 minute loop. So chances are it doesn't include any of that time period - and if there was something incriminating on it they would have just made sure to take 30 minutes...

  • by dangle (1381879) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:44AM (#29882519)

    There was an incredibly detailed account of the Brazilian midair collision in September 2006 that identified pilots trying to figure out the flight control systems on their new Legacy 600 as one of the distractions that led to the collision. Some of the controls were on a glass panel display, and there was also a laptop that distracted them. Apparently, as they were clicking around on stuff, they shut off their transponder.

    http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2009/01/air_crash200901 [vanityfair.com]

    Even more concerning, was the author's argument that the accuracy of GPS guided autopilot systems also contributed. Historically, even if two planes ended up at the same flight level, headed towards each other, the inherent sloppiness in the autopilot systems would actually increase the chance of a miss. Now, with autopilots capable of keeping planes within very close tolerances of their ideal flightpath, the same two planes accidentally occupying the same flight level may have a much higher chance of colliding.

  • Bad. Real Bad. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Starker_Kull (896770) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:44AM (#29882521)
    There is really no excuse for both pilots completely losing situational awareness like this. They're both toast, and deserve to be.

    As for the scheduling system they were going over - actually, that is probably the 'news for nerds' part. The old airline schedules were built in two units - 'pairings' and 'lines of time'. A pairing is a group of flights, typically from 1 to 6 days long, that begun and ended in a pilot domicile. The word 'pairing' was to indicate that an entire crew was 'paired' together that whole time. A line of time (or simply a line) was a month-long group of those pairings. There is a long list of legal requrements (min rest, max flight time, union contractual obligations, aircraft mx requirements, etc.) that these schedules had to meet.

    Ultimately, from the pilot's point of view, these lines were published each month for the next month. Bidding was very straightforward. If you were the number 1 senior pilot in that base (technically, domicile, aircraft and status (capt. or F/O), you picked your line, and that was that. If you were #2, you picked your schedule, and got it.... unless the number 1 guy already got it, in which case you got your second choice. If you were number #300.... well, picking 300 schedules in the order you want them was a time consuming task, but the outcome was perfectly transparent. The line awards were public, so you could verify that the schedules you didn't get really did go to senior people. You can debate whether such a system is 'fair', but at least it is clear how it works, both globally and month to month.

    Then, with the advent of more powerful computers, a system called 'PBS' was born - Preferential Bidding System. These systems, instead of having hard, published lines you bid from, instead only published the pairings. You expressed your 'Preferences' through a computer language. A computer program then ran, taking everybodys preferences, seniority, system constraints, etc. into account and generated schedules.

    In theory, PBS sounds great. A pilot's preferences generally don't change that much month to month, so you could file your bid away and let it run automatically each month with little or no tweaking.

    In practice, it's usually been highly disruptive and caused great angst for a year or two after being implemented, for many reasons:
    1) The language used to express your preferences is generally designed for the programmers, not the users.
    2) The results can be, to put it mildly, unexpected. When you have pre-published schedules, you have a pretty good idea ahead of time what to expect.
    3) There are no month-to-month conflicts that generate additional days off, resulting in more work per pilot, a reason the airlines like them and pilots don't, on average.
    4) Non-computer savvy older pilots (Captians) have a harder time getting it than younger pilots (F/O's), on average. It takes a vastly important piece of your life (when are you working? Where are you going? 28 hours in HNL or 32 hours in XNA?), and makes it tied to your comfort with learning, essentially, a primitive computer language.

    I cringe when I see this, because I've done this - taught Captians while flying about PBS. So have many other F/O's. You just prioritize it where it belongs - below aviating, navigating and communicating. These guys made everyone else look bad.
  • I am surprised (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jellomizer (103300) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:47AM (#29882537)

    I am surprised that anyone is able to keep their job. Where an honest mistake where no one was harmed causes someone to loose their career. I would feel more comfortable riding in a plain from a pilot who has a relatively good record and made a mistake and got severely corrected As they know the severity of their mistake, and are extra careful not to make an other one. Vs. a Pilot who has a good records but has gone too comfortable with their job, and will be likely to make their first mistake.

    It reminds me when I first started working. I was cleaning out my old backup files. so I meant to do a rm -f *~ but me being green and not so careful I did an rm -f * ~

    I Hit Ctrl-C after I realized it was taking way to long. However, I cleared out about 2 weeks of work. Plus my personal documents. Needless to say I learned to backup more freaklently and the value of a good source control system.
    But If I were to get fired after that mistake and forced to switch careers then I wouldn't be able to apply my new learned methods.

    That is why I cringe whenever there is a big mistake and people go well I hope that guy gets fired. Because the guy who did the mistake and especially if he was honest about it, would probably be so much more careful the nest time around. Who I would be more worried about is the guy who fired him. As part of the mistake is on him too. For not making sure they are safe guard in place.

    • Some perspective (Score:5, Insightful)

      by turing_m (1030530) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:54AM (#29882593)

      It reminds me when I first started working. I was cleaning out my old backup files. so I meant to do a rm -f *~ but me being green and not so careful I did an rm -f * ~

      The difference between that and the mistake of a pilot is a potential several hundred lives.

    • Re:I am surprised (Score:4, Insightful)

      by rotide (1015173) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:00AM (#29882643)

      I see what you're saying, however, you deleting your files may hurt your employers bottom line and potentially yours _at worst_, pilots losing awareness can mean hundreds of deaths.

      Now I'm not saying they should be fired, but I can easily see why they would be. Airlines and pilots are held to very strict standards by the government.

      Could additional "training" and a heavy penalty/fine resolve the issue and create two better pilots? Possibly and potentially even likely. But if the punishment for potentially putting hundreds of lives in risk is a slap on the wrist, do you really think all the thousands of other pilots are really going to take notice? I have a feeling being fired in this case shows all the other pilots to simply only consider being distracted if you want to lose your job. In short, it appears any "big" mistake ends in termination simply to make examples of you.

    • Re:I am surprised (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Cloud K (125581) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:17AM (#29882811)

      I certainly agree that nobody should be fired for a genuine, simple mistake, and with the idea that people will learn from their mistakes and become better at their jobs as a result.

      Nor do I particularly like to see people lose their jobs and therefore a lot of their chances of getting another, leading to what could be a very bad impact on their livelihood (and possibly the family's).

      But there's a difference between a genuine mistake and neglect. Hearing things on the radio but ignoring it, falls firmly into the neglect category IMO. And that's where they unfortunately but quite rightly shouldn't be trusted to fly again. Mistakes are a learning experience, but neglect is a personality problem.

    • by trudyscousin (258684) * on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:18AM (#29882817)

      Needless to say I learned to backup more freaklently

      The evolution of the English language is a fascinating thing.

  • by BabyDave (575083) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @08:48AM (#29882555)
    They were actually having a flamewar on LKML about what the best scheduler for the Linux kernel is.
  • by thickdiick (1663057) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:01AM (#29882645) Journal
    Do you know what happens to a captain (or any pilot, for that matter) when they are terminated? They start at the bottom of any airline that hires them. Yes, seniority is only on a per-airline basis. The only thing that matters in seniority is how long you've been at THAT airline.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by muckracer (1204794)

      > Do you know what happens to a captain (or any pilot, for that matter) when
      > they are terminated? They start at the bottom of any airline that hires
      > them.

      Perhaps as baggage handlers. I'd be very surprised if any airline would
      willingly engage in the potential public relations disaster by hiring a pilot
      "who already previously has put several hundred lives at risk".

  • by Pascal Sartoretti (454385) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:02AM (#29882659)

    so the first officer could tutor the captain in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines

    If this is really the case (which is still to be confirmed), then they were at least working for their company, making the best use of what they (incorrectly) thought was "available" time.

    Keep this in mind, all of you reading slashdot at work !

  • by roc97007 (608802) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @09:44AM (#29883111) Journal

    "It'll come up any minute now..."

  • by rnturn (11092) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 @10:12AM (#29883413)

    The first time I encountered that damned ribbon menu it took me a long time to get anything done, too.

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