WASHINGTON — Two Northwest Airlines pilots have told federal investigators that they were going over schedules using their laptop computers in violation of company policy while their plane overflew their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles, the National Transportation Safety Board said today.
The pilots — Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer, and Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain — said in interviews conducted over the weekend that they were not fatigued and didn’t fall asleep, the board said in a statement.
Instead, Cole and Cheney told investigators that they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, instructed the captain on monthly flight crew scheduling. The pilots were out of communication with air traffic controllers and their airline for more than an hour and didn’t realize their mistake until contacted by a flight attendant, the board said.
Many aviation safety experts had said it was more plausible that the pilots had fallen asleep during the cruise phase of their flight than that they had become so focused on a conversation that they lost awareness of their surroundings for more than an hour. Air traffic controllers in Denver and Minneapolis repeatedly tried without success to raise the pilots by radio. Other pilots in the vicinity tried reaching the plane on other radio frequencies. Their airline tried contacting them using a radio text message that chimes.
Authorities became so alarmed that National Guard jets were readied for takeoff at two locations and the White House Situation Room alerted senior White House officials, who monitored the airliner carrying 144 passenger and five crew members as it flew across a broad swath of the mid-continent completely out of contact with anyone on the ground.
“It’s inexcusable,” said former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. “I feel sorry for the individuals involved, but this was certainly not an innocuous event — this was a significant breach of aviation safety and aviation security.”