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Northwest Airlines Jet Flies Way Past Destination

Pilots of a Northwest Airlines flight ignored radio calls and flew more than 150 miles past their destination as the military prepared to scramble fighter jets to intercept the plane in mid-air, federal authorities said Thursday.

Northwest Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis flew for 1 hour 18 minutes Wednesday night without responding to air-traffic radio calls, covering a distance of about 600 miles before finally turning around, according to data released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The unidentified pilots told police and the FBI after landing that "they were in a heated discussion over airline policy" and lost track of where they were, the NTSB said in a release.

The Airbus A320 carrying 144 passengers, three flight attendants and the two pilots landed safely in Minneapolis at 9:15 p.m., said Delta Air Lines spokesman Ed Stewart. Delta and Northwest merged a year ago but have continued to fly under separate names.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) had been preparing to intercept the jet with four fighters, spokesman Michael Kucharek said. Before the fighters could get airborne, the Northwest pilots got back on the radio with controllers, Kucharek said.

Unlike when terrorists hijacked jets on Sept. 11, 2001, the Northwest jet continued to send automatic radio beacons to radar that identified it and allowed controllers to keep other jets away, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown.

The case resembles a Go airlines flight to Hilo, Hawaii, on Feb. 13, 2008, in which both pilots fell asleep. The jet flew for 18 minutes without responding to controllers. It flew past Hilo and was headed toward open ocean when it turned around.

The NTSB has also raised concerns about pilots in several recent fatal accidents who made critical errors after becoming distracted by non-work-related conversations. Federal rules bar pilots from casual conversations below 10,000 feet. The Northwest jet was cruising at 37,000 feet.

Investigators will look at whether fatigue or other factors played a roll in Wednesday's incident, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway. The NTSB said it intends to interview the pilots. The agency will also examine the jet's cockpit recorder.

After leaving San Diego, the jet flew over Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Somewhere in that area, the pilots failed to respond to a controller's instruction to switch radio frequencies, Brown said.

Numerous controllers tried repeatedly to reach the jet, said Brown and Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. They also contacted Delta in hopes the airline could contact the pilots, Brown said.

The pilots have been relieved of flying duties pending investigations, Stewart said.

Modern jets have sophisticated, computerized auto pilots that allow them to fly long distances with little or no input from pilots.

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