Video: Tapes reveal missed alerts from Northwest 188 flight

  1. Closed captioning of: Tapes reveal missed alerts from Northwest 188 flight

    >>> territory for the week's trading.

    >>> the faa today released air traffic control audiotapes from that northwest airlines flight last month that overshot its destination not by a little bit but by 150 miles. the tapes reveal air traffic controllers repeatedly trying to reach the aircraft, then making sure the plane hadn't been hijacked. nbc's tom costello has our report.

    >> northwest 188. minneapolis .

    >> reporter: it went on for an hour and 17 minutes.

    >> northwest 188, minneapolis center.

    >> reporter: controllers in several states urgently trying to raise northwest 188 from san diego to minneapolis . and asking each other how to handle it.

    >> i don't know what thewhat their procedure is if they can't talk to anybody. do they just hold over the airport?

    >> i don't know. you can't reach them at all?

    >> right. i can't --

    >> reporter: finally, after flying 150 miles past minneapolis , flight 188 calls in.

    >> roger. we got distracted and we've overflown minneapolis . we are overhead to eau claire and would like to make a 180 from eau claire .

    >> reporter: but controllers become concerned that the plane might have been hijacked.

    >> you can stay right here on this frequently. i just have to verify that the cockpit is secure.

    >> it is secure. we got distracted.

    >> reporter: and order the pilots to perform a series of turns to prove they're in control.

    >> northwest 188, turn right to a heading of 135.

    >> reporter: controllers then ask the pilots why they have not responded.

    >> just cockpit distraction. that's all k say.

    >> reporter: six minutes later controllers ask again.

    >> northwest 188, is there any way you can elaborate on the distraction?

    >> we're dealing with some company and that's all i can say right now at this time.

    >> reporter: once on the ground, the pilots claimed they'd been on their laptops distracted by new crew scheduling procedures. but form ner ntsb chairman mark rosenkerr is skeptical.

    >> whether they fell asleep, whether they were distracted as they say they were, both are unacceptable. total situational awareness is necessary when they're flying that airplane.

    >> reporter: the faa has revoked timothy cheney and first pilot richard cole 's pilot's licenses. both men are appealing. meanwhile they remain suspended from northwest airlines . tom costello nbc news, washington.

    >>> when our broadcast continues on

updated 11/27/2009 7:29:51 PM ET 2009-11-28T00:29:51

After a Northwest Airlines plane flew past Minneapolis last month, air traffic controllers asked the pilots repeatedly for explanations about why they didn't heed radio calls, according to transcripts released on Friday.

The Oct. 21 flight had been out of contact for 77 minutes before the pilots responded. The pilots told controllers right away that they had been distracted, but didn't give details, according to the transcript of their radio conversations released by the Federal Aviation Administration.

After almost 90 seconds of conversation about the route they should take to Minneapolis, the controllers said, "I just have to verify that the cockpit is secure."

"It is secure, we got distracted," one of the pilots responded. The transcript says the pilot then said that they never heard a call from the ground.

A different controller took over and, after five more minutes of directions about routes and altitudes, asked, "Do you have time to give a brief explanation on what happened?"

"Cockpit distractions that's all I can say," was the response from Northwest Flight 188.

About 12 minutes after contact had been re-established, the same controller asked, "is there any way you can elaborate on the distraction?"

The pilot said that they were dealing with some company issues, and that's "all I can tell you right now at this time," according to the transcript.

Air traffic controllers ultimately had the pilots perform several turns to verify that they were in control of the plane. It landed safely in Minneapolis, and was met at the gate by police.

The FAA has said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, controllers have been told to alert the military when a plane goes out of contact for five to 10 minutes. They waited for 69 minutes in this instance, a delay that FAA head Randy Babbitt has called "unacceptable." The agency has said it will strengthen procedures for alerting the military when controllers lose contact with planes.

The transcripts also show controllers checking that the flight, which originated in San Diego, had enough fuel. The pilot responded that they had about two hours' worth of fuel on board and that it wasn't a concern.

The pilots have told the National Transportation Safety Board that they were discussing their company's complicated new crew-scheduling program over their laptop computers as their plane flew past Minneapolis by 150 miles. Northwest was bought by Delta Air Lines Inc. last year and the company has been working to integrate its computer systems.

The FAA has revoked the licenses of the pilots, Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain, and Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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