Opinion: Pentagon scrambles fighter jets as pilots overshoot destination by 150 miles. Asleep in the cockpit?

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The 9/11 terrorist attacks involved jet airlines, transcontinental flights, and a lot of innocent passengers.

So when air traffic controllers lost contact Wednesday evening with a Northwest Airlines plane jetting from San Diego to Minneapolis, they feared a hijacking and contacted the Pentagon.

Later the two pilots said they were out of contact for 78 minutes -- overshooting their destination by 150 miles before calling the tower -- because they were having a “heated argument” about airline policy and “lost situational awareness.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is looking into the possibility that maybe they were asleep at the wheel. With the flight recorder now in Washington, investigators should know soon.


Two aspects of the story seem especially interesting.

One is that it was a flight attendant who apparently saved the day by finally alerting the pilots on an intercom. After that, with the plane already in Eau Claire, Wis., the pilots sought permission to turn back. They landed in Minneapolis about an hour after the scheduled arrival time.

But the second truly alarming feature is how close the 147 passengers and crew on board came to disaster. According to several reports, the National Guard was scrambling four fighter jets from two bases to intercept the plane. Because the pilots finally resumed contact with the tower, the jets never made it to the air.

But passengers were shaken later when they learned how close they had come to peril.

When you hear that fighter jets were ready to scramble, that just gets you really mad,” passenger Scott Kennedy told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

-- Johanna Neuman

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