Northwest Pilots Explain Reasons for Overflight

When Airbus decided to configure its A320 with sidesticks, one of the benefits was that the crew would have ample workroom without a control column in front of them. Northwest captain Timothy Cheney and first officer Richard Cole might now be wishing Airbus had stuck with the old school. According to the latest reports from the NTSB, the pilots say they were using their laptop computers - in violation of company policy - to review company seniority and scheduling policies last week when they overflew their destination airport (Minneapolis) by 150 miles. According to Cheney and Cole, they were so engrossed in their laptops that they never heard the handoff calls from Denver Center, and when the Airbus flew out of Denver's radio range, they didn't notice. Finally, a flight attendant alerted the pilots to their error. Some speculated that the pilots had fallen asleep, but they deny that allegation. They first claimed they had been involved in a "heated" discussion on company policy. Pilot fatigue is a media hot button following the crash of a regional turboprop near Buffalo last winter. But the image of two pilots arguing so vehemently that they lost situational awareness also piqued media reports. Subsequently, the pilots admitted to unapproved use of their electronic devices. Northwest was recently acquired by Delta Air Lines, and the all-important seniority lists are merging - always an anxious time for pilots. It has been reported that Cole was more familiar with the new scheduling procedures and was showing Cheney the ropes. The veteran pilots had clean records; Cheney with more than 20,000 hours and Cole more than 11,000 hours. Former NTSB board member Kitty Higgins said, "It is unsettling when you see experienced pilots who were not professional in flying this flight. This is clearly a wakeup call for everybody." Northwest has suspended Cheney and Cole, and the FAA revoked their pilot certificates on Tuesday, citing numerous violations of FARs. They have 10 days to appeal the certificate actions.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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