Air traffic controllers had to take steps to verify errant flight wasn't hijacked
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 did not 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 reestablished, 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 Administrator J. Randolph 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 that controllers checked 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 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.