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Pilot on wayward Northwest flight shrugs off incident

'Airplanes lose contact with the ground people all the time,' he says. He won't say why he and the captain didn't respond, but he does say: 'We were not asleep; we were not having an argument.'

October 25, 2009|Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The first officer of the Northwest Airlines jet that missed its destination by 150 miles said he and the captain were not sleeping or arguing in the cockpit, but he wouldn't explain their lapse in response and the detour.

"It was not a serious event, from a safety issue," pilot Richard Cole said late Friday at home in Salem, Ore. "I would tell you more, but I've already told you way too much."

Air traffic controllers and pilots had tried for more than an hour Wednesday night to contact the Twin Cities-bound flight. Officials on the ground alerted National Guard jets to prepare to chase the airliner, though none of the military planes left the runway.

The jet with 144 passengers aboard was being closely monitored by senior White House officials, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Saturday. He didn't say if President Obama was informed.

Many aviation safety experts and pilots said the most likely explanation was that the pilots fell asleep along their route from San Diego. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said fatigue and cockpit distraction are factors that would be looked into.

"We were not asleep; we were not having an argument; we were not having a fight," Cole said, but he would not discuss why it took so long for him and the flight's captain, Timothy B. Cheney, of Gig Harbor, Wash., to respond to radio calls.

"I can tell you that airplanes lose contact with the ground people all the time. It happens. Sometimes they get together right away; sometimes it takes a while before one or the other notices that they are not in contact."

The Federal Aviation Administration has sent letters informing the pilots that it is investigating them and that their pilot's licenses could be suspended or revoked, the FAA reported Friday.

Investigators were in the process Saturday of scheduling interviews with the pilots, Holloway said, and they downloaded audio from the cockpit voice recorder at NTSB headquarters Friday.

But they may not glean much from it. Though new recorders retain as much as two hours of data, the model on Northwest Flight 188 keeps 30 minutes -- only the end of the flight after the pilots realized their error over Wisconsin.

Cheney and Cole had just started their workweek and were coming off a 19-hour layover, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Saturday, citing an internal Northwest document that it said was described to the newspaper.

Cheney and Cole have been suspended.

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