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FAA revokes licenses of pilots who overshot airport

A 'frolic' by the two Northwest pilots endangered their passengers and crew, the agency says.

October 28, 2009|Hugo Martin

The Federal Aviation Administration revoked the licenses Tuesday of the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot a Minneapolis airport by 150 miles, saying that they "were on a frolic" that endangered the lives of others.

The revocation report, released Tuesday, harshly condemned the two pilots and barred them from flying.

"You engaged in conduct that put your passengers and your crew in serious jeopardy," FAA officials wrote in the report.

The pilots -- Capt. Timothy B. Cheney, 53, of Gig Harbor, Wash., and the first officer, Richard Cole, 54, of Salem, Ore. -- told investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board that they were distracted while discussing a new work schedule and using their laptop computers to make sense of the schedule.

The use of a laptop in the cockpit is a violation of airline policy.

Northwest Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis was out of contact with air traffic controllers for 91 minutes. The pilots were unaware they had overshot their destination until a flight attendant contacted them over an intercom.

The four-page emergency revocation order details the repeated efforts by air traffic controllers and others to communicate with the pilots. It also accuses the pilots of violating four sections of FAA regulations, including operating an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.

As the plane carrying 144 passengers crossed through the air space monitored by air traffic controllers from Denver and Minneapolis, the pilots ignored repeated instructions from both air traffic centers, according to the order.

Earlier accounts suggested the pilots were out of contact for 78 minutes, but the latest report shows that the pilots ignored instructions from Denver air traffic controllers nearly 30 minutes before the plane was scheduled to land in Minneapolis.

The report said the pilots ignored instructions by Denver controllers to contact Minneapolis controllers.

At one point, air traffic controllers in Minneapolis asked a Northwest Airlines dispatcher to contact the pilots, but they ignored eight attempts at communication, according to the report.

Federal aviation officials were so concerned about the wayward plane that they notified the military, which put Air National Guard fighters on alert at two locations. No jets were deployed.

"You operated NW [flight] 188 in a reckless manner that endangered the lives and property of others," officials wrote in the report. "NW 188 was without communication with any air traffic control facility and with its company dispatcher for a period of 91 minutes while you were on a frolic of your own."

Several aviation experts had theorized that the pilots fell asleep in the cockpit, but Cole and Cheney have denied that, saying instead they were engrossed in a conversation about their work schedule. Cole told television reporters at his home in Salem, Ore., last week that he could not comment on the incident but insisted that no one in the cockpit was asleep.

Federal investigators said they had not confiscated the laptop computers used by the pilots.

Delta Airlines, which purchased Northwest last fall, had already suspended the two pilots.

The FAA's emergency revocation means the pilots are immediately barred from flying. They have 10 days to appeal the revocation to an NTSB panel.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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