Flying while distracted? Northwest pilots say they used laptops

The pilots on last week’s wayward Northwest Airlines flight have given their official story: They were looking at laptop computers and discussing their employer’s work-schedule system.

Case closed?

Hardly. Not when Flight 188 flew past its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles. Not when traffic controllers had tried numerous times to reach the pilots, in vain.

But at least the flight crew’s explanation, reported by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Monday, provides a scrap of information on a mystery that has baffled the public and aviation experts since the incident occurred last Wednesday night.

The flight’s captain, Timothy Cheney, and first officer, Richard Cole, 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 – something that has been evolving due to a recent merger of Northwest with Delta. The pilots did not realize their mistake until contacted by a flight attendant, the NTSB said. The board’s investigation is continuing.

It’s possible that this incident will amplify calls for commercial airline flights to have cockpit voice recorders that capture at least two hours of audio – so more independent information is available on what happens in such incidents. Many flights already do that, but the Airbus A-320 plane on last week’s Minneapolis flight had an older voice recorder that leaves investigators with only a 30-minute tape. Flight 188 overshot by so much that the final 30 minutes of the flight includes dialogue taped after the flight crew was correcting course.

“We need to move to the modern standard of having two hours” of flight time recorded, says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, which represents airline passengers on issues of safety and service.

His organization and others focused on air safety also support the use of video cameras to capture cockpit activities during flights. Pilots unions, however, have traditionally resisted moves that open their workplace to greater scrutiny.

Will the Minneapolis overshoot, which ended safely for the 144 passengers on board, bring tighter oversight of flight crews? While it’s too soon to know, the incident has garnered national attention.

One of the pilots, Mr. Cole, told reporters over the weekend that the flight crew’s actions were “innocuous” and didn’t threaten passenger safety.

On one level, that may be true. The pilots, who had earlier said they were arguing over airline policy, told investigators they were not asleep, fatigued, or arguing.

But commercial pilots, with the safety of many people in their hands, aren’t supposed to lose contact with traffic controllers for an extended period of time, as this crew did for more than an hour. And Northwest has a policy against using laptops in the cockpit.

“It strains credulity that they were so busy on their laptops and talking that they didn’t pay attention to their primary duties,” Mr. Stempler says.

“It’s inexcusable,” former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall told AP. “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.”

In addition to radio attempts by air traffic controllers, other pilots in the vicinity tried reaching the plane, and Northwest tried contacting them using a radio text message that chimes. Fighter jets were readied for takeoff to intercept the plane, but did not take off as the crew reestablished radio contact.

Material from the Associated Press has been used in the report.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Roy Erickson on 10/27/2009 - 03:32 pm.

    Having served as VP of public relations for NWA from 1969-1980, I have had lots of contact with pilots–including two lengthy pilot strikes.

    In those 11 years, there was no recorded history of TWO NWA pilots falling asleep (at the same time) in the cockpit–and never on the picket line!!

    As the ‘truth’ emerges, appears that both pilots were busy figuring out their schedules, seniority and/or pensions (which are quite handsome by the way)on their personal PC’s.

    In this morning’s Strib, an ‘ex-pilot’ tries to justify sleeping in the cockpit as:

    a. Refreshing–and needed–at times, if the pilot did not sleep well the night before.
    b. Not uncommon.
    c. Sanctioned by some foreign flag carriers (which I strongly doubt)
    d. Understandable because flying on ‘automatic’ is a tedious, boring job.

    Since today’s jets are capable of flying themselves (which they do most of the time)–and even landing by themselves (which happens on occasion)–maybe pilots are passe’??

  2. Submitted by Roy Erickson on 10/27/2009 - 03:46 pm.

    Having served as VP of public relations for NWA from 1969 until 1980, I have had lots of contact with pilots–including two lengthy pilot strikes.

    In those 11 years, no TWO NWA pilots ever fell asleep in the cockpit at the ame time–and NEVER on the picket line!!

    As the ‘truth” emerges,appears that both pilots were busy figuring out theri schedules, seniority and/or pensions (which are quite handsome by the way).

    In this morning’s Strib, an ‘ex-pilot’ tries to justify sleeping in the conckpit as:

    a. Refreshing–and needed–at times, if the pilot did not sleep well the night before.

    b. Not uncommon.

    c. Something sanctioned by foreign flag air carries (which I strongly question).

    4. Necessary to break up the tedious monotony of flying a jet airplane.

    Since today’s airline jets can fly by themselves automatically (which is true most of the time) and can even land themselves without ‘human interference’ when needed, maybe pilots are passe’???

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