Video: Wayward pilots were logged in, checked out

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    >> so much, savannah.

    >>> and we have more to tell you tonight about that northwest airlines flight that overshot the mark on its way to minneapolis last week, out of radio contact for an hour and 20 minutes . what were the pilots doing? well, investigators are asking them that very question and are getting some surprising answers. here's nbc's tom costello.

    >> reporter: federal investigators say the pilot and co-pilot of flight 188 both told the same story, that over a period of time, they did not monitor the airplane or calls from air traffic control , even though they heard the radio, that neither pilot noticed computer messages that were sent by company dispatchers, and that they lost track of time as each pilot used his personal laptop to look at new airline crew flight scheduling procedures. delta air lines , which now owns northwest, said the use of personal laptops in the cockpit is a violation of its regulations. the fact that the crew wasn't asleep is no comfort to veteran pilots like retired captain jim tillman.

    >> it does not change the bottom line . the bottom line is where were you when they were trying to reach you, and why didn't you see minneapolis as you went zipping right across it?

    >> reporter: it wasn't until a flight attendant culled the flight deck that the crew realized they had already flown over minneapolis . they did a u- turn over wisconsin. now the faa could decide as soon as tomorrow whether to suspend or revoke each pilot's license. while it's rare for a crew to become so distracted, it has happened before. in 1974 an eastern airlines crew got distracted discussing president nixon 's pardon and crashed their plane just short of the runway in charlotte. 72 people died. but such incidents are the exception.

    >> we see flight operations that occur every day, tens of thousands of them all over the world. they are unnews worthy. that's what we always strive for.

    >> reporter: while both pilots have been suspended, late today delta said using laptops or engaging in activities unrelated to command of the aircraft is against flight deck policies and violations will result in termination pending the outcome of the investigation. tom costello, nbc news, washington.

    >>> now to health care reform .

updated 10/26/2009 6:40:39 PM ET 2009-10-26T22:40:39

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."

No contact
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.

Clean record
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.

First dibs
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.

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

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