Northwest pilots say they were distracted by laptops

By Sholnn Freeman
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The two pilots of a Northwest Airlines jet that overshot a Minneapolis airport by 150 miles last week might have lost track of time partly because they were using laptops, a violation of company policy, U.S. air safety investigators said Monday.

Co-pilot Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that he was giving instructions about monthly crew scheduling procedures to the plane's captain, Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash. The NTSB said each pilot used the computers during the discussion. Northwest's merger with Delta Air Lines last year has led to numerous policy changes for pilots.

Air traffic controllers lost radio contact with Northwest Flight 188, carrying 147 passengers, for more than an hour Wednesday. During five hours of NTSB interviews over the weekend, the pilots said they were flying at 37,000 feet when the discussion began. Federal rules allow pilots to converse at such altitudes; at lower altitudes, the rules limit cockpit talk that isn't related to flying the plane.

It is unclear which Federal Aviation Administration rules, if any, the pilots might have violated. The FAA does have rules concerning pilot distractions, and the agency mandates that crew members stay in contact with air traffic controllers.

Along with the NTSB probe, the FAA and Delta are investigating. The FAA has said its investigation could lead to an emergency suspension or revocation of the pilots' licenses. "There are a number of potential rules that we are looking at here," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

In the NTSB interviews, both pilots said they had no ongoing medical problems, were not fatigued and had not been involved in accidents, the NTSB said. Before the flight, the pilots had a 19-hour layover before leaving San Diego. They said there was no heated argument, and they denied falling asleep during the period under investigation.

Aviation safety experts described the mishap as "stunning."

"There is no reason that pilots not impaired by fatigue or other problems should allow themselves to become this distracted," said Bill Voss, president of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation. "I think they are probably telling the truth, because you would not have been able to make up a better lie."

Delta has suspended the pilots until the investigations are concluded. In a statement Monday, the company said 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." The airline said violations result in termination.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company