Northwest pilots blame air traffic controllers

WASHINGTON (AP) - December 7, 2009 Capt. Timothy Cheney, 54, of Gig Harbor, Wash., and First Officer Richard Cole, 54, of Salem, Ore., said in documents filed Nov. 24 with the National Transportation Safety Board that controllers didn't follow rules and practices contained in the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control manual and didn't coordinate effectively with Northwest dispatchers. The documents don't offer any details on those violations.

Cheney and Cole are appealing the Federal Aviation Administration's revocation of their pilots' licenses. The pair were out of radio contact for 77 minutes on Oct. 21 as their plane carrying 144 passengers flew more than 100 miles past Minneapolis. The Airbus A320 was over Wisconsin before controllers were able to re-establish contact.

The pilots later told authorities they had been working on crew scheduling on their laptops and didn't realize they had missed their destination until a flight attendant using an intercom asked when the flight would be landing.

Cole also said in his filing that he shouldn't be punished or his punishment should be mitigated because he relied on Cheney as the pilot in command of the aircraft to fulfill his responsibilities.

Both pilots had extensive flying experience and told investigators they had had no previous incidents or violations.

Cheney was hired by Northwest in 1985 and had about 20,000 hours of flying time, about half of it in the A320. Cole had about 11,000 hours of flight time, including 5,000 hours in the A320.

FAA revoked their licenses six days after the incident. The agency said the pilots violated numerous federal safety regulations, including failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating carelessly and recklessly.

Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, declined to comment, citing the union's status as a party to the NTSB's investigation of the incident.

FAA officials have said controllers repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to contact Northwest Flight 188 as it flew from San Diego across a broad swath of the continent. They've also said there were several shift changes during that time in which controllers going off duty who had handled the plane didn't inform controllers coming on duty that the plane was out of radio contact.

The pilots' appeals will be heard by an NTSB administrative law judge. No date has been set, but both pilots have asked for at least 90 days to gather information.

Immediately following the incident, Cheney and Cole were suspended by Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest in 2008.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said Monday the airline is cooperating with NTSB investigators as well as conducting its own investigation.

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