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FAA takes 2 pilots' licenses

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday revoked the licenses of the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles.

The pilots — Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain, and Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer — told safety investigators they were working on their personal laptop computers and lost track of time and place.

The pilots, who were out of communications with air traffic controllers for 91 minutes, violated numerous federal safety regulations in the incident Oct. 21, the FAA said in a statement. The violations included failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating carelessly and recklessly, the agency said.

"You engaged in conduct that put your passengers and your crew in serious jeopardy," FAA regional counsel Eddie Thomas said in a letter to Cheney. Northwest Flight 188 was not in communications with controllers or the airline dispatchers "while you were on a frolic of your own. . . . This is a total dereliction and disregard for your duties."

A similar letter was sent to Cole.

The pilots said they were brought back to awareness when a flight attendant contacted them on the aircraft's intercom. By then, they were over Wisconsin at 37,000 feet. They turned the Airbus A320 with its 144 passengers around and landed safely in Minneapolis.

Cole and Cheney said they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with the program, instructed the captain on monthly flight crew scheduling. They said they weren't listening to the radio or watching cockpit flight displays during that period. The plane's radio was also still tuned to the frequency used by Denver controllers after the San Diego-to-Minneapolis flight had flown beyond their reach.

There are no federal rules that specifically ban pilots' use of laptops or other personal electronic devices as long as the plane is flying above 10,000 feet, said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman.

Delta, which acquired Northwest last fall, said in a statement that using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots' command of the aircraft during flight is strictly against the airline's flight deck policies. The airline said violations of that policy will result in termination.

FAA takes 2 pilots' licenses 10/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 12:08am]

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