WASHINGTON — Two Northwest Airlines pilots 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 Monday.
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 experts had said it was more plausible that the pilots had fallen asleep during the cruise phase of their flight than that they had become so focused on a conversation that they lost awareness of their surroundings for more than an hour.
"Both pilots stated that they were not fatigued. They were both commuters, but they had a 19-hour layover in San Diego just prior to the incident flight," the NTSB statement said."
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 White House officials, who monitored the airliner carrying 144 passenger and five crew members as it flew across a broad swath of the mid-continent completely 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."
Safety investigators on Monday were interviewing the three flight attendants from the plane on Monday.
According to the NTSB, Cheney, 53, was hired in 1985 and has a total of about 20,000 hours flight time —about half in an Airbus A-320, the type of plane he was flying Wednesday.
Cole, 54, was hired in 1997 and his total flight time is about 11,000 hours, including about 5,000 hours on the A-320.Video: NWA passenger: 'It seemed pretty normal'
Both pilots said they had never had an accident, incident or violation, the agency said.
The pilots acknowledged that while they were engaged in working on their laptops they were not 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."
Delta Air Lines, the parent company of Northwest, said 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 strictly against the airline's flight deck policies and violations of that policy will result in termination," the airline 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 has not 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 they get paid more for flying.
Following Delta's acquisition of Northwest last October, an arbitration panel ruled that the pilot seniority lists at the two carriers should be integrated based on pilots' status and aircraft category.
The panel ruled that pilots from one carrier would not, for a period of time, be able to fly certain planes the other carrier brought to the combination.
The panel's decision affected the roughly 12,000 pilots of Delta and Northwest.
Pilot denies sleeping
Cle has said he and Cheney were not sleeping or arguing in the cockpit. "It was not a serious event, from a safety issue," 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."
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."
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.
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