WASHINGTON – A single call from a flight attendant to the pilots of the Northwest Airlines plane that overshot Minneapolis catapulted the cockpit crew from complacency to chaos.
Interviews with the flight crew and other documents released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board indicate the pilots were completely unaware of their predicament until the moment the intercom rang. They were unaware that they had flown their Airbus A320 with 144 passenger more than 100 miles past their destination, that air traffic controllers and their airline's dispatchers had been struggling to reach them for more than an hour, or that the military was at that moment readying fighter jets for an intercept mission.
Timothy Cheney, the captain of Flight 188, said he looked up from his laptop to discover there was no longer any flight information programmed into the Airbus A320's computer. He said his navigation system showed Duluth, Minnesota, off to his left and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, ahead on the right.
The plane had been out of radio contact for 77 minutes as it flew across a broad swath of the country on Oct. 21, raising national security concerns.
Cheney, 54, and First Officer Richard Cole, 54, told investigators they had taken out their laptops and were absorbed in working on a complicated crew scheduling program that they were required to learn following Delta Air Lines' acquisition of Northwest a year earlier. Cole told investigators they allowed themselves to get distracted and "got deeper and deeper into it."
The tension of the moment was evident in the crew interviews.
According to a statement signed by flight attendant Barbara Logan, she called the cockpit around 8:15 p.m. CDT to find out when they would be landing. She was told they would land around 12 Greenwich Mean Time. "I said I did not know the time — he said I was hosed and hung up."
The lead flight attendant called to get gate information and was apparently also hung up on, according to Logan's report. That flight attendant later got through to the cockpit.
Investigators' interviews with Cheney and Cole also hint at tension between the pilots. The pair were flying together for the first time. Cheney characterized Cole's piloting skills as "OK, but I've flown with better." He complained that Cole had missed some steps when they were readying for takeoff because he apparently was still learning Delta's procedures.
Both pilots are appealing the FAA's revocation of their licenses. Cole has cited his reliance on Cheney as the pilot in charge as a mitigating factor in his case.
Flight 188 wasn't the only Northwest operation that was hard to reach that night. A controller who called Northwest Airlines' dispatchers to ask them to contact the plane first encountered a recording telling him the phone number had been changed. He dialed the new number, but the phone rang 10 to 20 times without being answered, he told investigators. He hung up, then redialed.
This time, someone at Northwest Airlines dispatchers' office answered the phone — and put him on hold.
Northwest Airlines dispatchers sent messages to the cockpit asking pilots to contact air traffic controllers, but there was no response.
The Federal Aviation Administration has since said the phone numbers controllers had for Northwest predated its acquisition by Delta and have now been updated.
The NTSB's investigation into the incident has also exposed weaknesses in communications between controllers and the Domestic Events Network, which is essentially a running conference call between air traffic controllers, military commanders, and other authorities involved in aviation security that was established after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The manager on duty at the Minneapolis air traffic control facility that evening couldn't be reached by the network at one point. The network's speaker is at her desk, but her duties overseeing controllers take her away from the desk.
The same manager also told investigators she asked someone on network to call her by phone to discuss the possible need for fighters to intercept the plane because she wasn't sure the network's communications were secure. Only later did she realize the network had been setup in part to provide secure communications.
There were also equipment glitches. Some people come through so loud on the network speaker that it must be turned down, or even off. And "occasional clicking over the net is so loud and often that it renders the DEN line unusable," the NTSB wrote.
FAA officials have already acknowledged that air traffic control managers waited 69 minutes after the last contact with Flight 188 before alerting the network even though procedures call for notification after a failure to make contract lasting 10 minutes or more.