Video: FAA yanks licenses of wayward pilots

  1. Transcript of: FAA yanks licenses of wayward pilots

    MATT LAUER, co-host: And now to the FAA 's harsh words for the captain and first officer of Northwest Airlines Flight 188 as those pilots have their licenses revoked; an order that, by the way, is effective immediately. NBC 's Tom Costello has the latest on that. Tom , good morning to you.

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi , Matt , good morning. The FAA accuses both men of operating the flight in a reckless manner that endangered the lives and the property of others, and it alleges the crew was out of radio contact for even longer than we first thought. Nearly a week after Flight 188's bizarre trip across the country, 150 miles beyond its destination of Minneapolis , the FAA has sent both the pilot and first officer an emergency order revoking their pilots licenses. In very strong language , the FAA 's regional counsel calls the crew's actions "a total dereliction and disregard for your duties." Quote, "You have demonstrated your lack of regard for or your inability to adhere to your responsibility to exercise the highest standard of care, judgment, skill and responsibility as expected of an airman. You engaged in conduct that put your passengers and your crew in serious jeopardy. Northwest 188 was without communication with any air traffic control facility and with its company dispatcher for a period of 91 minutes while you were on a frolic of your own." It was last Friday when First Officer Richard Cole tried to play down the incident.

    Mr. RICHARD COLE: Nobody was asleep in the cockpit and no arguments took place.

    COSTELLO: Since then, both Cole and Captain Timothy Cheney have told investigators they violated company policy and were using their personal laptops, looking at the new crew scheduling system at Delta Airlines , which just bought Northwest . They admitted they lost track of time and failed to monitor the radio. Mike Pangia is a former chief attorney for the FAA .

    Mr. MIKE PANGIA: And I could see momentary distractions. That happens, particularly in the cockpits of today where everything is automated. But a distraction that lasts for an hour I think is totally unacceptable, and I think there's really something wrong there.

    COSTELLO: Just like on the nation's highways, this whole incident has federal investigators looking at clamping down on personal electronic devices that could be a distraction in the cockpit . But former NTSB investigator Greg Feith is cautious.

    Mr. GREG FEITH: Revoking of the certificate, that jeopardizes not only their ability to fly an airplane, but now it jeopardizes their career because these are professional pilots . And I think that there may have been a rush to judgment, or the fact that we don't have all the facts, conditions and circumstances. We don't know what the FAA is basing that determination or decision on.

    COSTELLO: Well, both pilots must surrender their licenses immediately. They can appeal that decision within 10 days, but they must do so to the NTSB . Meanwhile, they remain suspended from Delta Airlines , which has indicated they

    will likely be fired. Matt: All right, Tom Costello in Washington . Tom , thank you very much. James Hall is a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board . Hi , Jim . Good to see you.

    LAUER: Hi , Matt , good morning.

    Mr. JAMES HALL (Former NTSB Chairman): And so the FAA has responded dramatically and swiftly here, Jim . Did they get it right or, as Greg Feith just said, did they perhaps rush to judgment in this case?

    LAUER: No. New FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt is to be commended for sending such a strong message to the pilot community that any type of action that jeopardizes the life and safety of the individuals in the air and on the ground is not to be tolerated.

    Mr. HALL: These were experienced pilots , Jim , 30,000 hours of flight time between them. And it begs the question, how many other times does something like this happen? Maybe not as outrageous as this, but -- and not with these pilots . But how many times does a distraction, momentary or longer, in the cockpit , put the flying public in jeopardy?

    LAUER: Well we saw, Matt , in accidents, the recent accidents at Lexington and Buffalo that distraction played an important part in both of those tragedies. And that's why the new legislation that's moving through Congress right now that Chairman Jerry Costello sponsored, House Bill 3371, it's so important that legislation passes because it includes a number of new initiatives to address both fatigue and training.

    Mr. HALL: Should -- you know, there's something called the clean cockpit rule, which you know very -- an awful lot about. Basically, it says that below a certain altitude the pilots in the cockpit can only speak about the operation of the aircraft. Do we need to increase that to above a certain altitude? Do we need to come up with stricter regulations in that front?

    LAUER: Well, I think that this -- under this new legislation, a expert panel is going to be created by the FAA administrator to look at a number of important safety issues. I think distraction should be one of those issues that's addressed.

    Mr. HALL: We know that cameras now focus on the passenger cabin of an aircraft so the pilots can see what's happening back there. Do the passengers now have the right to have a camera focused in the cockpit so we know what's going on behind that locked and armed door?

    LAUER: Well, as you know, Matt , that recommendation was made by the NTSB while I was chairman after the EgyptAir tragedy. I think there needs to be cameras in the cockpit . And this what -- is what makes this even more grievous. Think of what passengers go through. You can't even have a couple of ounces of some sort of liquid gel carried on the aircraft...

    Mr. HALL: Right.

    LAUER: ...because of aviation safety , and here we saw that totally disregarded by the individuals who were responsible for that flight.

    Mr. HALL:

updated 10/28/2009 2:00:23 PM ET 2009-10-28T18:00:23

The two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles are grounded indefinitely unless the National Transportation Safety Board grants them a reprieve.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that it had revoked the licenses of the pilots of Northwest flight 188 — Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain, and Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer.

The pilots have 10 days to appeal to the three-member National Transportation Safety Board, the same agency that investigates air crashes and makes safety recommendations. If an appeal fails, they can apply for a new license after one year.

Working on laptops
The pilots told investigators they were working on their personal laptop computers and lost track of time and place last Wednesday night.

Flight 188 was out of communication for more than an hour during the incident despite repeated attempts by air traffic controllers in two states to reach the airliner, the FAA said in a statement. Northwest's dispatchers also tried eight times to contact the pilots, without response, the agency said.

The pilots violated numerous federal regulations, including failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating their aircraft carelessly and recklessly, the agency said.

"You engaged in conduct that put your passengers and your crew in serious jeopardy," FAA regional counsel Eddie Thomas wrote Cheney in a letter accompanying the revocation order. "NW188 was without communication with any air traffic control facility and with its company dispatcher for a period of 91 minutes (over 1.5 hours) while you were on a frolic of your own. Failing to comply with ATC clearances or instructions while engaged in air carrier operations is extremely reckless."

A similar letter was sent to Cole.

The pilots said they realized they had overshot their destination when a flight attendant contacted them on the aircraft's intercom. By then, they were over Wisconsin at 37,000 feet. They turned the Airbus A320 with its 144 passengers around and landed safely in Minneapolis.

The pilots union at Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last year, declined to comment. Earlier, the union had cautioned against a rush to judgment. The pilots told investigators who interviewed them on Sunday that they had no previous accidents or safety incidents.

Delta: Still suspended
Delta spokesman Anthony Black said in a statement late Tuesday: "The pilots in command of Northwest Flight 188 remain suspended until the conclusion of the investigations into this incident."

Phone messages left at the homes of the pilots were not immediately returned Tuesday night.

One passenger, Lonnie Heidtke of Chippewa Falls, Wis., said he thought it was a stiff penalty for the pilots.

"I feel that the FAA pulling their license seems a little severe, I guess. But at the same time, I think they should not be flying airplanes at least for a while so they have an opportunity to think about this."

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. They said they weren't listening to the radio or watching cockpit flight displays during that period. The plane's radio was also still tuned to the frequency used by Denver controllers after the San Diego-to-Minneapolis flight had flown beyond their reach.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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