The Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their destination by 150 miles have told investigators that they were distracted because they were using their personal laptops.
First Officer Richard Cole was allegedly helping Captain Timothy Cheney understand a new crew scheduling program while they lost track of time, according to a statement from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
So how exactly could something like this happen?
Many aviation experts have speculated that the two pilots fell asleep. Even though the pilots have denied this claim, their laptop explanation still does not account for why they missed multiple attempts from ground sources to contact them.
There were problems with this flight that occurred even before the laptops apparently distracted the pilots. Reportedly, the controller at the Denver air traffic control center made a routine call to flight 188 to tell the pilots to do a “handover”–to change the radio frequency.
Standard operating procedure calls for the pilot to verbally confirm the handover and the frequency. But one of the pilots might have been in the bathroom at the time of the handover command, and neither pilot verbally confirmed it. The controller apparently didn’t notice the lack of confirmation. By the time the problem was realized, the plane was on a radio frequency that was out of range.
Learn more about the original incident: Baby Boy Born on Plane and Were Northwest Pilots Napping?
Unfortunately, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) could not reveal anything noteworthy because the system on the older Airbus A320 plane only stores recordings 30 minutes in length.
We may never know for sure what happened in the cockpit, but the fact that the pilots were distracted by laptops will likely garner the headlines. This use of personal electronics in the cockpit is a violation of the airline’s flight deck policies, yet surprisingly, there is no federal regulation against using devices like laptops as long as the plane is above 10,000 feet.
In fact, pilots have admitted that this is a fairly common practice during the mostly automated “cruise” phase of the flight—although not both pilots at once, as in this case.
This high-profile incident will likely put pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB to ban personal electronic devices in the cockpit.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) is already chomping at the bit to put an end to this sort of activity. “We don’t tolerate texting while driving,” said Franken in a statement. “We’re certainly not standing for it while flying.”
The FAA currently has something known as the Sterile Cockpit Rule, which requires pilots to refrain from non-essential activities—but that only applies during critical phases of the flight, normally below 10,000 feet.
Cheney, 53, and Cole, 54, were both veteran pilots with more than 10,000 hours of flying experience and no history of incidents or violations. The FAA is expected to revoke or suspend their licenses.
Peter Greenberg Links:
- Baby Boy Born on Plane and Were Northwest Pilots Napping?
- Airlines & Airports – Air Travel News
- Bill Boosts Pilot Training Requirements, But Will It Make Skies Safer?