'Heated discussion' may have caused pilots to miss destination

As investigators try to figure out why a Northwest Airlines plane flew 150 miles past its destination, the flight and cockpit recorders are being brought to Washington. (Oct. 23)
By Mary Pat Flaherty
Saturday, October 24, 2009

The pilot of the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot Minneapolis airport by 150 miles gave "two thumbs up" to local airport police as he taxied in and "shook his head indicating all was ok," ending a tense hour in which he and his first officer had failed to respond to air traffic controllers, eight computer messages and calls to their cellphones, according to an incident report from the airport police.

The pilot is identified as Timothy B. Cheney, 53, and the first officer is listed as Richard I. Cole, 54, in an incident report from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Police Department. Calls to Cheney and Cole went into voicemail and messages were not returned.

Airport police met Northwest Flight 188 as it landed just after 9 p.m. Wednesday en route from San Diego, the report said.

The pilot told police he and Cole "had become involved in conversation and had not heard radio communications" as they flew their 144 passengers past Minneapolis and into Wisconsin, according to the police report. The report does not indicate whether officers asked if the pilot or co-pilot had fallen asleep and a police spokesman said the department would not go beyond its written report in describing events.

The Northwest crew of the Airbus A320 has told federal safety investigators they "were in a heated discussion over airline policy" and "lost situational awareness," according to a statement from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Both Cheney and Cole were "cooperative, apologetic and appreciative," the police report says. A preliminary breath test administered at the scene to both pilots was negative for alcohol, the report said.

The lead flight attendant told local police she was unaware of any incident during the flight, the report said.

On the ground, police and FBI agents prepared for the worst, and the Air National Guard put fighter jets on alert at two locations as the drama unfolded.

Pilots from two other planes in the vicinity were finally able to reach the pilots using a different radio frequency, a controllers union spokesman said.

Before local police arrived at the gate to speak with the flight crew of five, managers from Delta Air Lines told police they had "quizzed" the crew and that they indicated they "were okay and that there had been flight deck distractions," the report said.

Delta, which acquired Northwest last year, has barred the pilots from flying pending the NTSB investigations. It declined to comment beyond saying it was cooperating with investigators.

Passenger Lonnie Heidtke said he didn't notice anything unusual before the landing except that the plane was late.

The flight attendants "did say there was a delay and we'd have to orbit or something to that effect before we got back. They really didn't say we overflew Minneapolis. . . . They implied it was just a business-as-usual delay," said Heidtke, a supercomputer consultant with a company based in Bloomington, Minn.

Once the plane was on the ground, an airport police officer and a couple of other people came on board and stood at the cockpit door, talking to the pilots, he said.

"I did jokingly call my wife and say, 'This is the first time I've seen the police meet the plane. Maybe they're going to arrest the pilots for being so late.' Maybe I was right," Heidtke said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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