Wayward pilots passed alcohol-breath tests

Discussion in 'Defence & Strategic Issues' started by IBRIS, Oct 24, 2009.

  1. IBRIS

    IBRIS Senior Member Senior Member

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    Associated Press: HeraldNet: <B>UPDATE:</B> Wayward pilots passed alcohol-breath tests

    WASHINGTON — Were the pilots distracted? Catching up on their sleep? Federal investigators struggled to determine what the crew of a Northwest Airlines jetliner were doing at 37,000 feet as they sped 150 miles past their Minneapolis destination and military jets scrambled to chase them. Unfortunately, the cockpit voice recorder may not tell the tale.

    A report released late today said the pilots passed breathalyzer tests and were apologetic after Wednesday night’s amazing odyssey. They said they had been having a heated discussion about airline policy. But aviation safety experts and other pilots were frankly skeptical they could have become so consumed with shop talk that they forgot to land an airplane carrying 144 passengers.

    The most likely possibility, they said, is that the pilots simply fell asleep somewhere along their route from San Diego.

    “It certainly is a plausible explanation,” said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.

    New recorders retain as much as two hours of cockpit conversation and other noise, but the older model aboard Northwest’s Flight 188 includes just the last 30 minutes — only the very end of Wednesday night’s flight after the pilots realized their error over Wisconsin and were heading back to Minneapolis.

    They had flown through the night with no response as air traffic controllers in two states and pilots of other planes over a wide swath of the mid-continent tried to get their attention by radio, data message and cell phone. On the ground, concerned officials alerted National Guard jets to go after the airliner from two locations, though none of the military planes got off the runway.

    With worries about terrorists still high, even after contact was re-established, air traffic controllers asked the crew to prove who they were by executing turns.

    “Controllers have a heightened sense of vigilance when we’re not able to talk to an aircraft. That’s the reality post-9/11,” said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

    A report released by airport police today identified the pilot as Timothy B. Cheney and the first officer as Richard I. Cole. The report said the men were “cooperative, apologetic and appreciative” and volunteered to take preliminary breath tests that were zero for alcohol use. The report also said the lead flight attendant told police she was unaware of any incident during the flight.

    The pilots, both temporarily suspended, are to be interviewed by NTSB investigators next week. The airline, acquired last year by Delta Air Lines, is also investigating. Messages left at both men’s homes were not immediately returned.

    Investigators don’t know whether the pilots may have fallen asleep, but National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said Friday that fatigue and cockpit distraction will be looked into. The plane’s flight recorders were brought to the board’s Washington headquarters.

    Voss, the Flight Safety Foundation president, said a special concern was that the many safety checks built into the aviation system to prevent incidents like this one — or to correct them quickly — apparently were ineffective until the very end. Not only couldn’t air traffic controllers and other pilots raise the Northwest pilots for an hour, but the airline’s dispatcher should have been trying to reach them as well. The three flight attendants onboard should have questioned why there were no preparations for landing being made. Brightly lit cockpit displays should have warned the pilots it was time to land. Even the bright city lights of Minneapolis should have clued them in that they’d reached their destination.

    “It’s probably something you would say never would happen if this hadn’t just happened,” Voss said.

    The pilots were finally alerted to their situation when a flight attendant called on an intercom from the cabin. Two pilots flying in the vicinity were also finally able to raise the Northwest pilots using a Denver traffic control radio frequency instead of the local Minneapolis frequency.

    On the ground, police and FBI agents prepared for the worst.

    “When the aircraft taxied to the gate I was able to see the two white males in the seats of the flight crew, both were wearing uniforms consistent with Delta flight crew,” said a police report, signed by an Officer Starch. “When the aircraft had stopped, the male seated in the pilot seat turned, looked at me and gave me two thumbs up and shook his head indicating all was OK.”

    Air traffic controllers in Denver had been in contact with the pilots as they flew over the Rockies, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. But as the plane got closer to Minneapolis, she said, “the Denver center tried to contact the flight but couldn’t get anyone.”

    Denver controllers notified their counterparts in Minneapolis, who also tried to reach the crew without success, Brown said.

    Officials suspect Flight 188’s radio might still have been tuned to a frequency used by Denver controllers even though the plane had flown beyond their reach, said Church, the spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Union. Controllers worked throughout the incident with the pilots of other planes, asking them to try to raise Flight 188 using the Denver frequency, he said.

    Passenger Lonnie Heidtke said he didn’t notice anything unusual before the landing except that the plane was late.

    The flight attendants “did say there was a delay and we’d have to orbit or something to that effect before we got back. They really didn’t say we overflew Minneapolis. ... They implied it was just a business-as-usual delay,” said Heidtke, a consultant with a supercomputer consulting company based in Bloomington, Minn.

    Once on the ground, the plane was met by police and FBI agents. Passengers retrieving their luggage from overhead bins were asked by flight attendants sit down, Heidtke said. An airport police officer and a couple other people came on board and stood at the cockpit door, talking to the pilots, he said.

    “I did jokingly call my wife and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen the police meet the plane. Maybe they’re going to arrest the pilots for being so late.’ Maybe I was right,” Heidtke said.

    In January 2008, two pilots for go! airlines fell asleep for at least 18 minutes during a midmorning flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii. The plane passed its destination and was heading out over open ocean before controllers raised the pilots. The captain was later diagnosed with sleep apnea.

    FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said in general, an unsafe condition created by a pilot could lead to the suspension of the person’s pilot license and possibly a civil penalty.
     
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  3. RAM

    RAM The southern Man Senior Member

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    Airline pilots struggle to stay focused??

    The challenges inherent in getting a 162,000-pound aircraft off the ground and landing it safely are pretty obvious to most observers. But at cruising altitude, above 10,000 feet, pilots face a different critical challenge: staying focused.
    Two Northwest Airlines pilots lost their licenses Tuesday after they missed their destination by 150 miles because they weren't paying attention to their instruments or air traffic controllers.
    No one was hurt in the incident last week, but the Federal Aviation Administration called Capt. Timothy B. Cheney and first officer Richard I. Cole "extremely reckless" and said they put the public in danger.
    When cruising over great distances, "it's very easy to be distracted because there's not a whole lot going on," said Emilio Corsetti III, a 30-year commercial pilot with American Airlines who has written numerous magazine articles about aviation.
    An airliner's entire flight can be programmed; once that program is activated, "the plane will fly to its destination without any input from the pilot at all," he said.
    Cheney and Cole told investigators they lost track of time while using their personal laptop computers to look at new airline scheduling software related to Northwest's merger with Delta Air Lines. They were piloting the Airbus A320 from San Diego, California, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, a flight that should take 3 hours and 42 minutes.
    Watch what some experts say should be done
    So how do pilots pass the time and stay focused if they're not actively controlling the plane?
    "Sometimes you have to be creative to keep your mind occupied, but you're getting paid to monitor the radio and the instruments on the cockpit, so that's what you've got to do. That's all there is to it," said Charlie Bray, who retired in 2004 after 25 years of flying planes for Delta Air Lines.

    On Delta, pilots are not allowed to read anything that is not related to the operation of the aircraft, Bray said.


    "You can't read a novel, but you could read a manual about procedures or about the airplane," the former Boeing 767-400 pilot said. "You can't read a newspaper. You can't use a laptop. That's strictly prohibited."
    However, some airlines make documents, including manuals, available only in digital form and provide company laptops for pilots to use, Corsetti said.
    "It's not that unusual for a pilot to be looking at a laptop in cruise flight," said Corsetti, who is rated to fly the A320.
    The A320 is controlled with a side stick rather than a yoke, he said. The pilot can pull out a tray-table, which is probably where Cheney and Cole had their laptops, blocking their view of some of their instruments, he said.
    If the plane was on a flight program, it would have made turns automatically and messages would have flashed on the pilots' display to let them know it was time to carry out landing procedures, Corsetti said. If it was not programmed but merely homing in on the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, the plane would just keep going on the same setting after passing over the destination, he said.
    It's just not reasonable to expect a pilot to keep his eyes fixed on his gauges at all times, especially on a flight of more than three hours, said Corsetti, author of the book "35 Miles From Shore," about the 1970 open-water ditching of an Overseas National Airways flight.
    "To be honest, if all you did was sat there and looked at the instruments for hour after hour with nothing changing, you're going to be less focused," he said. "You're just going to kind of drift off because there's nothing to stimulate your mind. ... Any human being would lose interest in that function very quickly."
    As long as the plane is above 10,000 feet, the pilots are free to chat about any subject, Bray said.
    "If you happen to be flying with a crew member you have a lot in common with, you spend a lot of time talking," he said. "When you're at cruise altitude, visiting, talking, that's perfectly normal. And you can monitor instruments and listen to radios while you're doing that."
    Still, Bray said he always tried to keep the cockpit conversation under control.
    "The captain sets the tone, and my professional procedure was I always ran my cockpit by the book. It's easier to go by the book because that's the safest way, and you're never going to get in any trouble doing that."
    The Northwest incident has brought calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to impose tighter regulations on behavior in the cockpit. It's the latest in a series of accidents and incidents related to pilot inattention or distraction

    Airline pilots struggle to stay focused - CNN.com
     

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