Flight 188: Pilots 'Distracted By Their Laptops'

The pilots of the Northwest Airlines flight which overshot Minneapolis-St. Paul airport last week by more than 100 miles have told Federal investigators they "lost track of time" because they were fussing with their laptop computers, according to a new official bulletin by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The crew of Northwest Flight 188 was out of voice contact with ground controllers for 78 minutes as their flight from San Diego to Minneapolis flew past its destination and into Wisconsin before the crew abruptly resumed contact with the ground. After assuring themselves that the flight had not been hijacked, controllers instructed the crew to turn back toward Minneapolis, where it made a safe landing. The Federal Aviation Administration has sent the Flight 188 pilots "letters of enforcement" which could lead to a suspension or even revocation of their licenses. While Federal authorities haven't named the pilots, TV and press reports have identified them as Captain Timothy Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole.

According to the latest account issued by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, in separate interviews with investigators on Sunday, both pilots insisted they were not fatigued, having had a 19-hour layover in San Diego before boarding Flight 188. They denied dozing or sleeping during the flight, and also denied participating in any heated argument. Both pilots separately told investigators that what happened was that there was a "distraction in the cockpit." They said there had been a "concentrated period of discussion" regarding a new crew scheduling system which was being implemented following the takeover of Northwest Airlines by its new parent, Delta. As they discussed the new system, the pilots told the NTSB, they each "accessed and used his personal laptop computer." According to their account, first officer Cole, who was more familiar with the new system, was advising Captain Cheney how to cope with it. The NTSB said Northwest airline policy banned the use of personal computers by cockpit crews. But a federal flight safety official said he was unaware of any government regulation which imposed a similar ban. The pilots told investigators they did not pay attention to calls from controllers on the ground even though they apparently heard squawking from the ground on their radio. The pilots also said that neither of them noticed messages from airline dispatchers during the 78 minutes they were out of contact with the ground.

A veteran government safety official familiar with the current investigation said he had never heard of a previous case in which pilots claimed to have been distracted from their duties because they were too absorbed with their laptop computers. The official said at this point it was too early to say if the NTSB or FAA now will issue an official ban on such activities. Coincidentally, the Northwest Airlines incident occurs just as numerous local government are considering, or have already imposed, bans on motor vehicle drivers using cellphones and other handheld data devices while driving. Recent fatal mass transit crashes in Boston and Los Angeles have been attributed to drivers who were distracted while sending or receiving text messages from handheld devices.

Investigators appear to believe that there is a certain plausibility to the pilots' explanations about being absorbed while using their laptops, although officials are still not 100 percent convinced by the pilots' story. By the same token, the government may have little other hard evidence which could shake or contradict the pilots stories: the cockpit voice recorder on Flight 188 only was capable of recording the last 30 minutes of the flight. This means that sound from the period when the pilots were incommunicado with the ground was erased: the NTSB says that the recording recovered from the flight only "began during final approach, and continued while the aircraft was at the gate." The NTSB also said that one of the cockpit microphones was out of order. Flight 188's data recorder did capture information about how the plane's systems operated throughout the flight, but it is unclear what light this largely technical information might be able to shine on what went on between the pilots while they flew at high altitude across the country, unaware of an increasingly frantic effort by the Air Traffic Control system and their company to contact them.