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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Jumbo Jet Lands In Belgium by Mistake

WASHINGTON -- A Northwest Airlines jumbo jet, bound for Germany from Detroit, landed by mistake in Belgium early last month, and the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating how European air traffic controllers misdirected the plane and why the crew failed to notice until just before landing.


The investigation into how the Frankfurt-bound plane landed 320 kilometers away in Brussels so far has traced a trail of missed opportunities to redirect the flight, including the reluctance of flight attendants to contact the cockpit crew when they and the 241 passengers clearly saw the path the plane was taking on electronic map displays in the cabin.


"The only people on that plane who didn't know where they were were the three guys up front," an aviation industry source close to the investigation said.


Northwest spokesman John Austin said the captain, first officer and flight engineer have been grounded pending the outcome of the investigation.


The Sept. 5 incident began when a controller at Shannon, Ireland, for some reason that has not been determined, changed Flight 52's destination in the air traffic control computer. Sources close to the investigation said the action could not have been done inadvertently because someone would have had to type in the new destination. Air traffic computers across Europe then electronically accepted the assertion that the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was supposed to go to Brussels.


Meanwhile, the experienced crew failed to follow standard procedure, which calls for crews to routinely cross-check their location on cockpit navigation instruments. Clouds blocked the usual visual clues.


Then came another bizarre twist. The crew made contact with who it thought were Frankfurt controllers, and addressed the controllers as "Frankfurt approach." The Brussels controllers never corrected them.


Passengers and flight attendants, meanwhile, could see their location on an electronic map display in the cabin, installed by Northwest to keep passengers updated on the flight's progress and to point out features on the ground.


Sources said flight attendants became disturbed by the clear change of flight plan, and some of them speculated that the plane had been hijacked. Then, when it became clear that the plane was landing, the flight attendants decided not to contact the crew because of the rule that forbids disturbing the crew on approach to landing except in an emergency.


Breaking through the clouds, the crew saw for the first time the geography of the area and the layout of the airport, and realized it was not Frankfurt. The captain decided to complete the landing rather than go around and head for Frankfurt.


"It was the right decision," an investigator said. "He did the safe thing."


The passengers finally arrived in Frankfurt about seven hours late.