Even Lawyers Sometimes Lose Situational Awareness

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009, Northwest Airlines Flight 188 arrived an hour and 15 minutes behind schedule. That's pretty much par for the course for Northwest. In fact, it's better than par. For Northwest, it's a birdie (pun intended). But the interesting part of the story is why the flight from San Diego to Minneapolis was over an hour late.

The pilots admitted that they "overshot" the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles. In the words from Agent Maxwell Smart, they "missed it by that much!"

I know a lot of lawyers who are amateur pilots. It's not unusual for them to "overshoot" an airport such as the General Dewitt Spain Airport in Memphis, the Island Home Airport in Knoxville, or Parsons International " home airport of my favorite lawyer/aviator, Captain Ed Townsend (not that he would ever overshoot). But these lawyers are amateur pilots. Commercial airline pilots are supposed to have the right stuff, like Chuck Yeager or John Glenn, or Captain "Sully," who landed the US Air flight on the Hudson River. They're not supposed to "overshoot" anything, particularly the airport where they are supposed to land.

But believe it or not, the story gets worse. The Northwest pilots "overshot" the airport because, in their words, they "lost situational awareness." I've never heard that phrase before, and I'm not sure what it means. Were they asleep? Drunk? In need of a court-appointed conservator?

The pilots first claimed they "lost situational awareness" because they were in the midst of a heated discussion regarding Northwest company policy. You read that right, Sky-King-breath! The pilot and copilot, whom 144 passengers were depending upon to get them safely from San Diego to Minneapolis, got into a heated discussion as if they were panelists on "The McLaughlin Group." The discussion was so heated that they paid no attention to their instruments or radio communications coming to them from the ground below.

The problem with this story (and, as it turned out, it was a story) is that there is a recording device in the plane that tapes up to 30 minutes of conversations that take place in the cockpit. Apparently, the cockpit recording tape in this case turned out to be like the famous Watergate tape that President Nixon's secretary, Rosemary Woods, accidentally erased. In short, there was no evidence on the flight recorder tape that Captain Roger, First Officer Over, and Flight Engineer Done had been debating, for example, whether Northwest should have merged with Delta.

So then, the pilots went to a second explanation as to why they lost their mojo, or, in this case, their situational awareness. They claimed they got distracted because they were looking at their laptops. Again, this is something that happens to folks all the time. My teenaged daughter, for example, can lose situational awareness for hours when she is on Facebook.

But, once again, you don't expect pilots in a commercial airline to be fiddling around with their laptops while they are supposed to be flying the cotton-pickin' plane. Don't the flight attendants tell the rest of us in the plane that we can't even play with our Blackberrys?

While the pilots are sticking to their laptop stories, most folks in the court of public opinion have reached this verdict: the pilots lost situational awareness because they were sleeping. That's really the only rational explanation. It just had to be bedtime for Captain Bonzo at 37,000 feet.

There is also some pretty compelling evidence to support the Naptime Theory. For example, how else can the pilots explain that rather than donning their Northwest pilot uniforms, they were wearing footy pj's?

And what about the snoring we hear on the flight recorder tape?

I don't know why the pilots don't just fess up that they simply nodded off. It couldn't make matters worse (they both lost their pilot's licenses and will be probably fired by Northwest), and at least their explanation would make sense. Oh, and it would also be honest. If you're going to lose your job and your pilot's license, you sure shouldn't pull a Clinton in the process.

As bad as it is, it's not like pilots are the only folks who nap on the job. In fact, in the legal business, it's done all the time.

Over the past 30 years, I've been involved in more than a hundred trials, and, more often than not, at least one person in the courtroom has caught a few zz's during the course of the proceedings.

I've seen more than my share of lawyers, jurors and, yes, even judges, falling asleep during the middle of a trial. You can't really blame them. Most trials are about as exciting as ... I don't know, flying a plane.

I'm not going to admit that I've dozed during a trial, but I will confess that sometimes while my eyes are open, I have put the trial on "automatic lawyer."

I not only have a hard time staying awake during trials. Sometimes, when I'm in my office working at my desk, I tend to ... uh ... tend to ... ZZZZ ... ZZZZ ... ZZZZ ... Where am I? Oh ... sorry! Boy, am I bushed. Sorry, but I gotta go. I'm late for my flying lesson.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.

His latest book, Some Assembly Required: A Daddy’s Christmas Book, is reviewed in this issue and available at billhaltom.com.