It Must Have Been An Exceptionally Absorbing Conversation

The story about Northwest Flight 188, the airline flight that went 100 miles past Minneapolis before turning around to land — and that was out of radio contact for an hour as a result — is one of the weirdest stories I’ve heard in a long time.

The pilot and co-pilot say that they were in the midst of a heated conversation about airline policy and “lost situational awareness.” Hard to argue with the latter point! But how in the world could a discussion about policy be so absorbing that the pilots were oblivious to the bells, buzzers, radio calls, and other technological gadgetry that exists solely to warn pilots that they are doing something like flying blithely past their intended landing spot? I’ve had some riveting conversations at work, I suppose, but none that would render me insensate to all notions of time and space.

The pilots’ stated explanation seems so unlikely that speculation is running rampant about what might have happened. Were the pilots asleep? In a fistfight? Engaging in untoward activities with the flight attendants? The subject of a hijack attempt that was called off in a no-harm, no-foul situation? Or, like the balloon boy family, are they simply angling for their own reality show?

Whatever it was, it is one of those things that gives business travelers the heebie-jeebies. Those of us who fly frequently just have to trust that they guy with the wing pin is, in fact, a qualified pilot who knows what he is doing and is paying attention to getting us safely to our destination. When something like this happens, the trust gets undercut. The next time I travel and walk past the cockpit as I board my plane, I’m sure I’ll wonder whether the pilots are planning on having some in-depth discussion during the flight.