- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A call from a flight attendant to the pilots of the Northwest Airlines plane that overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport catapulted the cockpit crew from complacency to confusion.

Interviews with the flight crew and other documents released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board indicate the pilots were completely unaware of their predicament until the moment the intercom rang. They were unaware they had flown their Airbus A320 with 144 passenger more than 100 miles past their destination, that air traffic controllers and their airline’s dispatchers had been struggling to reach them for more than an hour, and that the military was at that moment readying fighter jets for an intercept mission.

Capt. Timothy Cheney, who commanded Flight 188, said he looked up from his laptop to discover there was no longer any flight information programmed into the Airbus A320’s computer. He said his navigation system showed Duluth, Minn., off to his left and Eau Claire, Wis., ahead on the right.

The plane was out of radio contact for 77 minutes as it flew across a broad swath of the country on Oct. 21, raising national security concerns.

Mr. Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole, both 54, told investigators they had taken out their laptops and were absorbed in working on a complicated crew scheduling program they were required to learn following Delta Air Lines’ acquisition of Northwest a year earlier. Mr. Cole told investigators they became distracted as they “got deeper and deeper into it.”

Mr. Cheney said he was “blown away” by how long the conversation, which was only supposed to take about 10 minutes, went on. Investigators wrote that Mr. Cheney felt embarrassed. Their report quotes him saying, “I was wrong,” and saying that he “let another force come from the outside and distract me.”

The tension of the moment the pilots became aware of their predicament was evident in the crew interviews.

According to a statement signed by flight attendant Barbara Logan, she called the cockpit about 8:15 p.m. CDT to find out when they would be landing. She was told they would land around midnight Greenwich Mean Time (7 p.m. CDT). “I said I did not know the time — he said I was hosed and hung up.”

The lead flight attendant called to get gate information and was apparently also hung up on, according to Ms. Logan’s report. That flight attendant later got through to the cockpit.

Investigators’ interviews with Mr. Cheney and Mr. Cole also hint at tension between the pilots. The pair were flying together for the first time. Mr. Cheney characterized Mr. Cole’s piloting skills as “OK, but I’ve flown with better.” He complained that Mr. Cole had missed some steps when they were readying for takeoff because he apparently still was learning Delta’s procedures.

Both pilots are appealing the FAA’s revocation of their licenses. Mr. Cole has cited his reliance on Mr. Cheney as the pilot in charge as a mitigating factor in his case.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said the two pilots remain suspended while Delta investigates the incident.

Flight 188 wasn’t the only Northwest operation that was hard to reach that night. A controller who called Northwest’s dispatchers to ask them to contact the plane first encountered a recording telling him the phone number had been changed. He dialed the new number, but the phone rang 10 to 20 times without being answered, he told investigators. He hung up and then redialed.

This time, someone at the dispatch office answered the phone — and put him on hold.

The Federal Aviation Administration has since said the phone numbers controllers had for Northwest predated its acquisition by Delta and have now been updated.

Northwest dispatchers ultimately sent 15 text messages to the cockpit asking pilots to contact controllers, but there was no response. The pilots said they didn’t notice the messages until after they re-established contact. Mr. Cole said he later inadvertently pushed the “delete all” button, erasing the messages.

The first controllers the pilots spoke to after becoming aware of their situation turned out to be in Winnipeg, Canada. They had failed to switch their radio frequency from one used by controllers in Denver to one used by Minneapolis controllers. They were still using the Denver frequency, which is the same as the Winnipeg frequency, when they tried to reach air traffic control.

The NTSB’s investigation into the incident also has exposed weaknesses in communications between controllers and the Domestic Events Network, or DEN, which is essentially a running conference call between air traffic controllers, military commanders and other authorities involved in aviation security that was established after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The manager on duty at the Minneapolis air traffic control facility that evening couldn’t be reached by the network at one point. The network’s speaker is at her desk, but her duties overseeing controllers take her away from the desk.

The same manager also told investigators she asked someone on the network to call her by phone to discuss the possible need for fighters to intercept the plane because she wasn’t sure the network’s communications were secure. Only later did she realize the network had been set up in part to provide secure communications.

AP writer Joshua Freed reported from Minneapolis.

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