Any employee at a company that has gone through a merger knows how distracting it can be when the new owner imposes new rules. That distraction, not a nap, was what two Northwest Airlines pilots insist caused them to fly far beyond the Minneapolis airport last week, federal investigators reported Monday.
The pilots told the National Transportation Safety Board that they missed their destination because they had taken out their personal laptops in the cockpit, a violation of airline policy, so the first officer, Richard I. Cole, could tutor the captain, Timothy B. Cheney, in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last fall.
The interim report from the NTSB ran counter to theories in aviation circles last week that the two pilots might have fallen asleep or were arguing in the cockpit. Each pilot denied that in separate interviews with the safety board that totaled more than five hours.
“Both said they lost track of time,” the report stated. It also said that the pilots had heard voices over their cockpit radios but ignored them.
The pilots passed breath analysis tests to check for alcohol use, and had had a 17-hour break between the San Diego trip and their previous flight.
Delta, in a statement Monday, hinted strongly that the lapse could cost both men their jobs. “Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots’ command of the aircraft during flight,” the statement said, “is strictly against the airline’s flight deck policies and violations of that policy will result in termination.” The pilots remain suspended until completion of the airline’s investigation.
The impromptu tutoring session apparently caused Cole and Cheney to ignore air-traffic controllers for about 90 minutes on Wednesday night, and forget to begin preparations for landing in Minneapolis. Instead, the plane flew about 110 miles to the skies over Eau Claire, Wis., as more than a dozen air-traffic controllers in three locations serving Denver and Minneapolis tried to get the plane’s attention.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command readied four fighter jets and had them on “runway alert” in the vicinity, according to a command spokesman, Mike Kucharek.
A flight attendant finally called the cockpit when the plane did not begin its scheduled descent to Minneapolis to ask when it might arrive, according to the report. The plane, which carried 144 passengers and three flight attendants as well as the two pilots en route from San Diego, made a loop in the sky over Wisconsin and returned to Minneapolis, where it landed safely.
Industry executives and analysts said the pilots’ behavior was a striking lapse for such veteran airmen. The two pilots have a total of 31,000 flying hours of experience between them. Cheney, of Gig Harbor, Wash., has been at Northwest since 1985, while Cole, of Salem, Ore., has been at the airline since 1997.
Robert W. Mann Jr., a veteran industry analyst, said of the pilots’ explanation: “It’s inexcusable.”