Flying Fail! Pilots Overshoot Airport

When you get on an airplane, where does the biggest threat come from? From the mumbling, abnormally stiff gentleman to your right who requests seat belt extensions? Perhaps it comes from the bearded fellow with the exotic name. Maybe it comes from a crying infant who threatens your sleep, or a flight attendant whom you nagged incessantly and now wants to poison your food! Actually, the biggest problem with air travel can sometimes be the pilots themselves.

In 1987, Delta Flight 810 plunged approximately a thousand feet after the pilot accidentally turned off the engine. The plane came within 600 feet of the Pacific Ocean. After the pilot corrected his error, the flight continued along the way to Cincinnati. He had meant to manually disconnect the electronic control system by pushing a square button, but had instead pulled a round knob. Boeing, which made the 767 aircraft involved, was baffled at how the pilot could make such a dire geometrical error. If that doesn’t sound too bad to you, consider that the pilot told passengers “to get ready to crash” and that there were not enough life jackets for children.

That was on Jul. 3, 1987. Five days later, Delta’s pilots were at it again. Admittedly, it wasn’t totally their fault this time. En route to Lexington, Kentucky, Delta Flight 699 had to go around thunderstorms and land at night. They did successfully land in Kentucky — but in Frankfurt. Apparently, the two airports look similar and neither had staffed control towers at three in the morning.

At least the pilots in the first incident were aware of the problem, unlike two Air India pilots who had to be awakened. Yes, they had fallen asleep, both of them. The flight was destined for Bombay on autopilot. The pilots were woken up when air traffic control buzzed the cockpit.

And who says airline security is useless? On Christmas Eve, 2008, Jet Airways pilot Michael Harr, a former US Marine, was scheduled to fly a plane from London to Bombay. Instead, he was pulled from the aircraft and taken to jail. Why? Well, he was a bit drunk.

It isn’t always a pilot causing the trouble; several times it’s the plane itself. The engines of planes have fallen off mid-flight. In each case the cause was determined to be buildup from the lavatory (just ice, allegedly).

Most recently, just two Wednesdays ago, it was back to the old story of pilots losing track of time, this time on Northwest Flight 188, during which the pilots simply failed to talk to air traffic control for more than an hour and the plane flew 100 miles past its destination. The pilots maintained they did not fall asleep and that they simply lost track of time and location.

Fatigue is obviously a major problem in aviation and pilots have difficult jobs and are overworked. The National Transpiration Safety Board has done much to highlight the issue of fatigue in aviation safety. And it, err, transpires that pilots aren’t the only ones who suffer; even people on the ground do. The working schedule for air traffic controllers can be ludicrous, with up to two eight hour shifts scheduled within a 24-hour period, making it immensely difficult for controllers to get enough sleep. The NTSB’s investigations into the causes of several airline crashes found sleep deprivation among air traffic controllers involved to be a recurring theme.

The NTSB has suggested that the Federal Aviation Administration, the employer of air traffic controllers, does not adequately consider the amount of rest its employees receive when scheduling shifts, and many feel that it is not hiring enough controllers.

Of course, even if the FAA did introduce some reforms, the incidents recounted here mainly involved pilots. They also didn’t all involve fatigue, nor were they all traceable to some readily solvable cause (what can someone do to prevent pilots from pushing the wrong button in the future — they’re already different shapes).

Luckily, none of these were as bad as when Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed into the Everglades as a result of one of the autopilot buttons having accidentally been pushed into a position that put the plane into a slow descent. 101 people died. But what can you do; accidents happen.

Samier Saeed is a second-year economics major. He can be reached at ssaeed@uci.edu.