Monday, October 26, 2009

Wayward pilots say they were busy using laptops

By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press Writer Joan Lowy, Associated Press Writer – 26 mins ago
WASHINGTON – Not sleeping, the pilots say. They were engrossed in a complicated new crew-scheduling program on their laptop computers as their plane flew past its Minneapolis landing by 150 miles — a cockpit violation of airline policy that could cost them their licenses.

They were so focused on the scheduling — quite a complicated matter for the pilots after Delta Air Lines acquired Northwest Airlines a year ago — that they were out of communication with air traffic controllers and their airline for more than an hour. They didn't realize their mistake until contacted by a flight attendant about five minutes before the flight's scheduled landing last Wednesday night, the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.

By then, Northwest Flight 188 with its 144 passengers and five crew members was over Wisconsin, at 37,000 feet.

The pilots — Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer, and Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain — denied they had fallen asleep as aviation experts have suggested, the safety board said in recounting investigators' interviews with the men over the weekend.

Instead, Cole and Cheney said they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, instructed the captain on monthly flight crew scheduling.

A number of aviation experts — and people wondering about their next airline flights — have been suggesting it was more plausible that the pilots had fallen asleep during the San Diego-to-Minneapolis flight 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 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 officials, who monitored the airliner as the Airbus A320 flew across a broad swath of the mid-continent out of contact with anyone on the ground.

"It's inexcusable," said former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. "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."

Delta said in a statement that using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots' command of the aircraft during flight is strictly against the airline's flight deck policies. The airline said violations of that policy will result in termination.

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.

"I think it depends upon how it's being used," Spitaliere said.

The Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents major U.S. 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.

Delta has suspended the two pilots pending an investigation into the incident. FAA is also investigating and has warned Cheney and Cole their pilot licenses could be suspended or revoked.

Pilots' schedules are tied to their seniority, which also determines the aircraft they fly. Those at the top of the list get first choice on vacations, the best routes and the bigger planes that they get paid more for flying. Following Delta Air Lines' acquisition of Northwest, an arbitration panel ruled that the pilot seniority lists at the two carriers should be integrated based on pilots' status and aircraft category.

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, 54, had about 11,000 hours of flight time, including 5,000 hours in 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 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. "This is clearly a wakeup call for everybody."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called the incident "the ultimate case of distracted driving, only this time it was distracted flying."


AP Airlines Writer Harry R. Weber contributed to this report from Atlanta.


On the Net:

National Transportation Safety Board:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pilot who overshot airport denies crew was napping

By STEVE KARNOWSKI and BRAD CAIN,Associated Press Writers - Sunday, October 25

MINNEAPOLIS – The first officer of the Northwest Airlines jet that missed its destination by 150 miles says he and the captain were not sleeping or arguing in the cockpit but he wouldn't explain their lapse in response and the detour.

"It was not a serious event, from a safety issue," pilot Richard Cole said late Friday in front of his Salem, Ore., home. "I would tell you more, but I've already told you way too much."

Air traffic controllers and pilots had tried for more than an hour Wednesday night to contact the Minneapolis-bound flight. Officials on the ground alerted National Guard jets to prepare to chase the airliner, though none of the military planes left the runway.

The jet with 144 passengers aboard was being closely monitored by senior White House officials, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told The Associated Press on Saturday. He didn't say if President Barack Obama was informed.

Many aviation safety experts and pilots say the most likely explanation is that the pilots fell asleep along their route from San Diego. NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said fatigue and cockpit distraction are factors that will be looked into.

"We were not asleep; we were not having an argument; we were not having a fight," Cole said, but would not discuss why it took so long for him and the flight's captain, Timothy B. Cheney, of Gig Harbor, Wash., to respond to radio calls.

"I can tell you that airplanes lose contact with the ground people all the time. It happens. Sometimes they get together right away; sometimes it takes awhile before one or the other notices that they are not in contact."

The FAA said Friday letters had been sent informing the pilots they are being investigated by the agency and it is possible their pilot's licenses could be suspended or revoked.

Investigators were in the process Saturday of scheduling interviews with the pilots, Holloway said, and audio from the cockpit voice recorder was downloaded at NTSB headquarters on Friday.

But they may not glean much from it. While new recorders retain as much as two hours of cockpit conversation and other noise, the older model aboard Northwest's Flight 188 includes just the last 30 minutes _ only the very end of the flight after the pilots realized their error over Wisconsin.

The NTSB recommended a decade ago that airlines be required to have two-hour cockpit voice recorders. The standard has been 15- to 30-minute recorders.

Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule requiring airplanes and helicopters seating 10 or more people to have the 2-hour audio recordings, but gave the industry time to comply. Aircraft made after March 2010 must come equipped with longer recorders, though many manufacturers have already been including them. Existing planes have until March 2012 to comply.

The FAA rule doesn't require cockpit video recordings, which the NTSB had also recommended. Pilots opposed the video recordings.

Northwest, which was acquired last year by Delta Air Lines, is also investigating the incident. Cheney and Cole have been suspended. Messages left at Cheney's home were not returned.

The pilots passed breathalyzer tests and were apologetic after the flight, according to a police report released Friday. Cheney and Cole had just started their work week and were coming off a 19-hour layover, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Saturday, citing an internal Northwest document it said was described to the newspaper.

The police report said that the crew indicated they had been having a heated discussion about airline policy.


AP Writers Joan Lowy in Washington and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis and AP Airlines Writers Joshua Freed in Minneapolis, Harry R. Weber in Atlanta and Dave Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report. Cain reported from Salem, Ore.


On the Net: tracking of Northwest Flight 188:

National Transportation Safety Board