Video: Co-pilot: ‘Nobody was asleep’ on wayward jet

  1. Closed captioning of: Co-pilot: ‘Nobody was asleep’ on wayward jet

    >>> that.

    >>> the silence from the cockpit that turned a routine northwest airlines flight from california to minnesota into a bizarre airborne mystery is slowing being broken this weekend, as the pilots begin to tell their story.

    >> reporter: today federal investigators were scheduled to interview the pilots of northwest flight 188 a probe that left air traffic controllers without contact with the plane for nearly an hour and 20 minutes .

    >> i can't talk about specifics but there's a lot of misinformation going on.

    >> reporter: the co-pilot of flight 188, richard kohl, insists the crew was in control.

    >> nobody was asleep in the cockpit. no arguments took place, but other than that, i cannot tell you anything that went on.

    >> reporter: the pilots will need to explain to the national transportation safety board how they overshot their destination. the flight, which departed san diego , was headed east to minneapolis. instead of landing, the crew flew 150 miles past its destination at 37,000 feet over wisconsin the airbus made a you-turn. before flight 188 could land in st. paul, pilots had to perform a series of ma snooufrs. air traffic control wanted them to prove they had command of the plane. fighter jets were ready to scramble it needed. senior white house officials were notified in the situation room.

    >> reporter: the cockpit voice recorder has been retrieved, but it may not tell investigators everything. an older model, it only records 30 minutes at a time. everyone on flight 188 is safe, but the reality is passengers never really know what's happening in the cockpit of their plane. that's what investigators will try to find out.

    >> one of the things that i think they'll be looking at is how the pilots were monitoring the air traffic control frequency. they may not have had it up loud enough to hear the air traffic controllers , so that's one question.

    >> reporter: one in a series of questions investigators hope to answer in the coming days. nbc news, los angeles .

updated 10/25/2009 6:12:11 PM ET 2009-10-25T22:12:11

Federal investigators were interviewing the crew of the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said investigators will interview the pilot and co-pilot in person on Sunday in Minneapolis. He would not provide additional details, but did say the NTSB will not comment on the substance of the interviews until Monday at the earliest.

Northwest Airlines is cooperating and doing its own internal investigation, says Chris Kelly, a spokesman for Northwest Airlines' parent company, Delta Air Lines Inc.

Air traffic controllers tried for more than an hour Wednesday night to contact the Minneapolis-bound flight, which later turned around and landed safely. First officer Richard Cole has said he and the captain were not sleeping or arguing in the cockpit, but hasn't explained 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."

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.

He would not discuss why it took so long for the pilots to respond to radio calls, "but 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."

Passed alcohol breath tests
The Minneapolis Star Tribune, citing an internal Northwest document it said was described to the newspaper, reported that Cheney and Cole began what was to be a five-day flying stint Tuesday with a flight from Minneapolis to San Diego. The newspaper said the pair had a 19-hour layover before Wednesday's return flight.

A police report released Friday said the pilots passed breathalyzer tests and were apologetic after the flight. The report also said that the crew indicated they had been having a heated discussion about airline policy.

But aviation safety experts and other pilots were deeply skeptical they could have become so distracted by shop talk that they forgot to land an airplane carrying 144 passengers. The most likely possibility, they said, is that the pilots simply fell asleep somewhere along their route from San Diego.

Video: What happened aboard wayward flight? "It certainly is a plausible explanation," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.

Unfortunately, the cockpit voice recorder may not tell the tale.

New recorders retain as much as two hours of cockpit conversation and other noise, but the older model aboard Northwest's Flight 188 includes just the last 30 minutes — only the very end of Wednesday night's flight after the pilots realized their error over Wisconsin and were heading back to Minneapolis.

Suspended during inquiry
Cheney and Cole have been suspended and are to be interviewed by National Transportation Safety Board investigators next week. The airline, acquired last year by Delta Air Lines, is also investigating. Messages left at Cheney's home were not returned.

Image: NWA flight path
N. Rapp  /  AP
Graphic shows path of Northwest Airlines
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said in general, an unsafe condition created by a pilot could lead to the suspension of the person's pilot license and possibly a civil penalty.

With worries about terrorists still high, even after contact was re-established, air traffic controllers asked the crew to prove who they were by executing turns.

"Controllers have a heightened sense of vigilance when we're not able to talk to an aircraft. That's the reality post-9/11," said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said fatigue and cockpit distraction will be looked into. The plane's flight recorders were brought to the board's Washington headquarters.

The pilots were finally alerted to their situation when a flight attendant called on an intercom from the cabin.

Voss said a special concern was that the many safety checks built into the aviation system to prevent incidents like this one — or to correct them quickly — apparently were ineffective until the very end. Not only couldn't air traffic controllers and other pilots raise the Northwest pilots for an hour, but the airline's dispatcher should have been trying to reach them as well. The three flight attendants onboard should have questioned why there were no preparations for landing being made. Brightly lit cockpit displays should have warned the pilots it was time to land.

"It's probably something you would say never would happen if this hadn't just happened," Voss said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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