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Wayward pilots were working on their laptops

Pair tell officials they were going over schedules

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / October 27, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Two Northwest Airlines pilots have told federal investigators that they were going over schedules using their laptop computers in violation of company policy while their plane overflew their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles, the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.

The pilots - Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer, and Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain - said in interviews conducted over the weekend that they were not fatigued and didn’t fall asleep, the board said in a statement. Instead, Cole and Cheney told investigators that they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, instructed the captain on monthly flight crew scheduling.

The pilots were out of communication with air traffic controllers and their airline for more than an hour and didn’t realize their mistake until contacted by a flight attendant, the board said. Many aviation safety analysts had said it was more plausible that the pilots had fallen asleep during the cruise phase of their flight last Wednesday night than that they had become so focused on a conversation that they lost awareness of their surroundings for such a lengthy period of time.

Air traffic controllers in Denver and Minneapolis repeatedly tried without success to raise the pilots of the San Diego-to-Minneapolis flight by radio. Other pilots in the vicinity tried reaching the plane on other radio frequencies. Their airline tried contacting them using a radio text message that chimes.

Authorities became so alarmed that National Guard jets were readied for takeoff at two locations and the White House Situation Room alerted senior White House officials, who monitored Northwest Flight 188 with its 144 passengers and five crew members as the Airbus A320 flew across a broad swath of the mid-continent completely out of contact with anyone on the ground.

“It’s inexcusable,’’ said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman. “I feel sorry for the individuals involved, but this was certainly not an innocuous event. This was a significant breach of aviation safety and aviation security.’’

Cheney and Cole are both experienced pilots, according to the NTSB. Cheney, 53, was hired by Northwest in 1985 and has about 20,000 hours of flying time, about half of which was in the A320. Cole had about 11,000 hours of flight time, including 5,000 hours on the A320. Both pilots told the board they had never had an accident, incident, or violation, the board said.

The pilots acknowledged that while they were engaged in working on their laptops they weren’t paying attention to radio traffic, messages from their airline, or their cockpit instruments, the board said. That’s contrary to one of the fundamentals of commercial piloting, which is to keep attention focused on monitoring messages from controllers and on watching flight displays in the cockpit.

“It is unsettling when you see experienced pilots who were not professional in flying this flight,’’ said Kitty Higgins, a former NTSB board member.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, called the incident “the ultimate case of distracted driving, only this time it was distracted flying.’’

Delta Air Lines, owner of Northwest, said in a statement yesterday that the pilots will remain suspended until the conclusion of the investigations.

Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots’ command of the aircraft during flight is prohibited by the airline’s flight deck policies and violations could lead to dismissal, Delta said.

There are no federal rules that specifically ban pilots’ use of laptops or other personal electronic devices as long as the plane is flying above 10,000 feet, said Diane Spitaliere, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman.

The Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents major US airlines, expects pilots to comply with federal regulations and airline policies, but hasn’t taken a position on the use of electronic devices by pilots while in the cockpit, ATA spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida said.

Pilot schedules are tied to their seniority, which also determines the aircraft they fly and layoff protection. Those at the top of the list get first choice on vacations, the best routes, and the bigger planes that trigger a higher pilot pay rate.