MINNEAPOLIS – The first officer of the jet that missed its destination by 150 miles has denied a disagreement with his captain or a nap in the cockpit, claiming passengers were never in danger.
But two days after the pair flew past their destination as air-traffic controllers tried frantically to reach them, pilot Richard Cole refused to say what made them forget to land Northwest Airlines Flight 188.
“We were not asleep; we were not having an argument; we were not having a fight,” Mr Cole said yesterday.
Air-traffic controllers and pilots tried for more than an hour on Wednesday night, local time, to contact Mr Cole and captain Timothy Cheney, of Gig Harbour, Washington state, using radio, mobile phone and data messages.
Officials alerted National Guard jets to prepare to chase the airliner from two locations, though none of the military planes left the runway.
“It was not a serious event, from a safety (perspective),” Mr Cole said in front of his home in Salem, Oregon. “I would tell you more, but I’ve already told you way too much.”
The cockpit voice recorder may not tell the tale. New recorders retain as much as two hours of cockpit conversation and other noise, but the older model aboard Flight 188 includes just the last 30 minutes – only the very end of Wednesday night’s flight after the pilots realised their error over Wisconsin and were heading back to Minneapolis.
Mr Cole would not discuss why it took so long for the pilots to respond to radio calls, “but I can tell you that airplanes lose contact with the ground people all the time. It happens. Sometimes they get together right away; sometimes it takes a while before one or the other notices that they are not in contact.”
Mr Cheney and Mr Cole have been suspended and are to be interviewed by National Transportation Safety Board investigators next week. They risk licence suspension and a possible civil penalty.
A police report released on Friday said the pilots passed breathalyser tests and were apologetic after the flight. They had just started their work week and were coming off a 19-hour layover.
The police report said the crew indicated they had been having a heated discussion about airline policy and “lost situational awareness”.
But aviation safety experts said it was more likely that the pilots simply fell asleep.
Pilots typically engage autopilots after take-off, rely on flight-management computers to navigate and adjust speeds while cruising, then program descent trajectories to approach runways. During a trip of more than three hours, pilots essentially monitor instruments in a darkened cockpit surrounded by rhythmic engine noises. Research has demonstrated that under those conditions, pilots can doze off without realising it.
Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, said a special concern was that the many safety checks built into the aviation system were apparently ineffective until the very end. The airline’s dispatcher should have been trying to reach them as well as air-traffic control. The three flight attendants should have questioned why there were no preparations for landing. Bright cockpit displays should have warned the pilots it was time to land.
Research has shown that short naps mid-flight could help make pilots more alert during landings. While strictly forbidden in the US, such “controlled napping” is endorsed under certain conditions by some foreign carriers.