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Pilot who overshot airport denies crew was napping

MINNEAPOLIS — The first officer of the Northwest Airlines jet that missed its destination by 150 miles says he and the captain were not sleeping or arguing in the cockpit, but he wouldn't explain their lapse in response and the detour.

"It was not a serious event, from a safety issue," pilot Richard Cole said late Friday in front of his Salem, Ore., home. "I would tell you more, but I've already told you way too much."

Air traffic controllers and pilots had tried for more than an hour Wednesday night to contact the Minneapolis-bound flight. Officials on the ground alerted National Guard jets to prepare to chase the airliner, though none of the military planes left the runway.

The jet with 144 passengers aboard was being closely monitored by senior White House officials, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Saturday. He didn't say if President Barack Obama was informed.

Many aviation safety experts and pilots say the most likely explanation is that the pilots fell asleep along their route from San Diego. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said fatigue and cockpit distraction are factors that will be looked into.

"We were not asleep; we were not having an argument; we were not having a fight," Cole said, but would not discuss why it took so long for him and the flight's captain, Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., to respond to radio calls.

"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 awhile before one or the other notices that they are not in contact."

Investigators on Saturday were scheduling interviews with the pilots, Holloway said, and audio from the cockpit voice recorder was downloaded at NTSB headquarters on Friday.

But investigators may not glean much from it. While new recorders retain as much as two hours of cockpit conversation and other noise, the older model aboard Northwest's Flight 188 includes just the last 30 minutes — only the very end of the flight after the pilots realized their error over Wisconsin.

Northwest, which was acquired last year by Delta Air Lines, is also investigating the incident. Cheney and Cole have been suspended. Messages left at Cheney's home were not returned.

The pilots passed Breathalyzer tests and were apologetic after the flight, according to a police report released Friday. Cheney and Cole had just started their workweek and were coming off a 19-hour layover, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Saturday, citing an internal Northwest document it said was described to the newspaper.

The police report said that the crew indicated they had been having a heated discussion about airline policy.

In a strongly worded internal memo, Air France has warned its pilots to be more vigilant about safety procedures and upbraided those blaming flight equipment for the crash of Flight 447 into the Atlantic after leaving Brazil in June. No one knows what caused the crash, which killed all 228 people aboard and was Air France's deadliest crash. "Enough Scandals and False Debates about Flight Security!" reads the memo, sent Tuesday. It dismisses calls by pilots for new safety procedures. "It suffices simply to apply our doctrine, our procedures," the memo says. Pilots' unions said Saturday the company is trying to distance itself from blame — and shift attention to the possibility of human error.

Pilot who overshot airport denies crew was napping 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 10:08pm]

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