Wayward pilots were working on their laptops

The two pilots who overshot a Minneapolis airport by 150 miles last week told federal investigators that they did not doze off but said they were distracted while using personal laptop computers and discussing a new work schedule.

The Northwest Airlines pilots said they pulled out their laptops as they talked about how the new schedule would work, the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.

Neither pilot on Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis was aware of the airplane’s position until a flight attendant called through an intercom about five minutes before they were scheduled to land.

The pilots have been suspended pending the results of the NTSB investigation.


The safety board has yet to determine why the pilots did not respond to repeated calls and text messages from air traffic controllers. The pilots were out of touch for about 78 minutes, the report said, and several aviation experts have suggested that they had fallen asleep.

An NTSB advisory issued Monday offered several new details of the investigation.

The captain, Timothy B. Cheney, 53, of Gig Harbor, Wash., and the first officer, Richard Cole, 54, of Salem, Ore., are veteran pilots who said they had no accidents or violations on their records.

The pilots, who were interviewed for a total of five hours by investigators over the weekend, told the NTSB that they did not fall asleep during the Oct. 21 flight, which was carrying 144 passengers and five crew members.


Rather, Cheney and Cole told the NTSB that they used their laptops while discussing the new work schedule. The use of a PC in the cockpit is a violation of airline policy.

The first officer was more familiar with the scheduling procedure and was apparently instructing the captain, the report said. There was no wireless Internet access available on the flight.

Delta Air Lines Inc., which bought Northwest last year, has created a consolidated work schedule for pilots and other flight crew members as the two carriers continue merging operations.

When air traffic controllers could not reach the pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration notified the military, which put Air National Guard fighter jets on alert at two locations. No jets were dispatched.


The pilots told the NTSB that they heard radio communications through the cockpit speakers but were so distracted by their discussion that they didn’t realize they had overshot the airport. When Cheney and Cole finally responded to the air traffic controllers, they replied, “Just cockpit distractions” and “Dealing with company issues.”

The cockpit voice recorder might yield little insight into the incident because it recorded only the flight’s last 30 minutes -- in this case a period that included the plane’s final approach and some time when the aircraft was at the gate.

Atlanta-based Delta said Monday that 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, and violations of that policy will result in termination.”

A report in the Wall Street Journal suggested that the two pilots might also have become distracted after one left the cockpit to use the restroom and a flight attendant brought food and briefly stayed to chat.


An FAA official, however, said the preliminary investigation found that the door to the cockpit remained locked during most of the flight.

Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson said: “Nothing is more important to Delta than safety. We are going to continue to cooperate fully with the NTSB and the FAA in their investigations.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) took her own jab at the pilots, saying, “This may be the ultimate case of distracted driving, only this time it was distracted flying.”