Two Northwest Airlines pilots failed to make radio contact with ground controllers for more than an hour and overflew their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles before discovering the mistake and turning around.
The plane landed safely Wednesday evening, apparently without passengers realising that anything had been amiss.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the crew told authorities they became distracted during a heated discussion over airline policy and lost track of their location, but federal officials are investigating whether pilot fatigue might also have played a role.
The National Transportation Safety Board does not yet know if the crew fell asleep, spokesman Keith Holloway said, calling that idea "speculative."
Flight 188, an Airbus A320, was flying from San Diego to Minneapolis with 144 passengers and five crew. The pilots dropped out of radio contact with controllers just before 7 p.m. The jet flew over the airport just before 8 p.m. and overshot it before communication was re-established at 8:14 p.m, the NTSB said.
The FAA notified the military, which put Air National Guard fighter jets on alert at two locations.
"After FAA re-established communications, we pulled off," said Michael Kucharek, a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman.
Andrea Allmon, who had been traveling from San Diego on business, said no one on the plane knew anything was amiss until the end of the flight.
"Everybody got up to get their luggage and the plane was swarmed by police as we were getting our bags down from the overhead bins," she said.
She said they were kept on the plane briefly while police talked to the crew, then allowed off. She said she was "horrified" to learn what had happened.
"When I do my job I do my job," she said. "These guys are supposed to be paying attention to the flight. The safety of the passengers should be first and foremost. (It's) unbelievable to me that they weren't paying attention. Just not paying attention."
As of Thursday afternoon, NTSB investigators had not yet examined the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, which were being sent to Washington for analysis. Holloway said the agency was also seeking to interview the pilots, but had not scheduled a meeting.
A320s are equipped with a phone-like device that airline dispatchers can use to contact the crew, said Shirley Phillips, a former simulator instructor for US Airways who has flown the A320.
"It's fairly loud," she said. "There's lots of whistles and bells and things in the Airbus that all signify different things, but it has a pretty distinctive sound to it. I wouldn't say that you would mistake it for anything else."
In any case, she said the cockpit voice recorder should prove whether the pilots were arguing, as they claim.
"It literally records when they sneeze. It's going to record all the noise that goes on there."
The two pilots have been suspended from flying while Delta Air Lines Inc. conducts an internal investigation, said Anthony Black, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based airline. He refused to name them or give further details on their background or what happened in the air.
After the plane landed, two airport police officers boarded the plane at the gate, which authorities said is standard procedure after a crew loses communication with air traffic controllers.
In January 2008, two go! airlines pilots fell asleep for at least 18 minutes during a midmorning flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii. The plane passed its destination before controllers raised the pilots, who landed safely. The captain was later diagnosed with sleep apnea.Reuse content