You've heard of planes that vanished into thin air? Here's a truer, scarier story: On Oct. 21, 2009, two pilots flying from San Diego to Minneapolis vanished into cyberspace.
Their plane was fine. Ground controllers tracked it the whole time. The passengers and flight attendants in the main cabin noticed nothing unusual. And the pilots' bodies stayed planted in their seats as though they were flying the aircraft. But they weren't flying it. Their minds had been sucked into a pair of laptops.
You can read the whole story in a report released yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board. It's a portrait of the perils lurking in our matrix of cell phones, BlackBerrys, MP3 players, and video games. We're migrating out of the physical world —in this case, with 144 passengers onboard.
Northwest Airlines Flight 188 overshot its destination by 100 miles. According to the NTSB report, the pilots were drug-free and wide awake. Yet they failed to respond to air traffic controllers for an hour and 17 minutes. How could this happen?
The story begins with two portable computers. The captain had a gripe about his work schedule and wanted to fix it through the airline's scheduling system. The only way he could access the system was through his laptop. So he opened the laptop, right there in the cockpit. The first officer opened his own laptop and started to teach the captain how to work the software. Pretty soon, their thoughts had left the plane.
If this scene strikes you as insane, perhaps you're under the mistaken impression that pilots operate their planes. They don't. Computers operate the planes. Pilots mostly baby-sit them. The NTSB report explains how the captain programmed the Flight Management System, which then steered the plane via autopilot while the pilots checked out.
The pilots were supposed to send "position reports" informing the airline of their status while en route. But an airline dispatcher had told the captain not to send such reports because they were burdensome and unnecessary. The dispatcher explained that the airline's computers could track its planes perfectly well without human intervention.
In fact, ground computers did track the plane. They relayed warnings to the pilots and verified that the plane's computers had received these warnings. But the ground and airborne computers were talking only to each other. The pilots were out of the loop.
The warnings appeared as messages on the cockpit flight displays. Why didn't the pilots notice them? Because they weren't looking at the displays. They were looking at the laptops. In fact, the first officer told investigators that the pilot's laptop was blocking the flight displays. The captain said it wasn't, but he couldn't remember what was on the displays.
Didn't the pilots hear anything? Nope. When the autopilot reached its programmed endpoint near Minneapolis, it kept cruising along with no audible warning. The text messages from dispatchers on the ground were equally silent. Dispatchers tried to alert the pilots by chime or buzzer, but the plane lacked the requisite equipment. There were radios in the cockpits, but the ground controllers didn't know which frequency they were tuned to, and the pilots were so engrossed in the laptops that all they heard was "chatter." When your brain checks out, your eyes and ears follow.
What about the world outside the plane? Didn't the pilots see where they were going?
Actually, no. By the time they opened their laptops, it was dark outside, and clouds covered Minneapolis. They were flying blind.
OK, so they couldn't see and weren't watching their flight computers. But what about the other humans onboard? Didn't the flight attendants talk to the pilots?
Not much. Since 9/11, cockpits have been sealed to keep out hijackers. Pilots live in their own little world. The first officer told investigators that he and the captain "were only required to talk to the flight attendants before takeoff," according to the NTSB report. Once the laptops were open, the flight attendants didn't speak up till the plane was past its destination. That's when the pilots looked at their displays and realized where they were.
In his interview with investigators, the captain profusely apologized. He said he had "let another force come from the outside and distract me." But that isn't what happened on Flight 188. The force didn't come from outside. It came from inside. It enveloped the pilots' minds and shut down their senses. They lost touch with everything outside: their displays, the world beyond their windshield, the passengers behind the cockpit door.
And the pilots weren't distracted. They were impervious to distractions. They were completely focused on their laptops.
That's what worries me most about our journey into cyberspace. Going in may prove to be a lot easier than getting out.