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October 24, 2009

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Pilots should have had many warnings

TWO Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their destination by 240 kilometers before turning back should have had numerous warnings as they approached and passed Minneapolis: cockpit displays, controllers trying repeatedly to reach, the city lights twinkling below.

Yet the pilots didn't discover their mistake until a flight attendant in the cabin contacted them by intercom, said a source close to the investigation who wasn't authorized to talk publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

By that time, the plane was over Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and the pilots had been out of communication with air traffic controllers for over an hour.

The crew told authorities they were distracted during a heated discussion over airline policy, the Federal Aviation Administration said. But federal officials are investigating whether pilot fatigue might be to blame.

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Thursday investigators hadn't yet questioned the pilots and didn't know whether it was possible they had fallen asleep. The pilots have been suspended from flying by their airline while it, too, investigates.

The plane, en route from San Diego with 144 passengers and a crew of five, passed over its destination of Minneapolis at 11,280 meters just before 9pm EDT on Wednesday (0100 GMT Thursday). Contact with controllers wasn't established until 14 minutes later, said the NTSB, which is probing the incident.

As of Thursday, the NTSB had not yet examined the plane's cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.


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