Wayward Northwest Pilots Grounded After Losing Licenses

The two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles are grounded indefinitely unless the National Transportation Safety Board grants them a reprieve.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that it had revoked the licenses of the pilots of Northwest flight 188 — Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., the captain, and Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., the first officer.

The pilots have 10 days to appeal to the three-member National Transportation Safety Board, the same agency that investigates air crashes and makes safety recommendations. If an appeal fails, they can apply for a new license after one year.

SLIDESHOW: Northwest Airlines Plane Mystery

The pilots told investigators they were working on their personal laptop computers and lost track of time and place last Wednesday night.

Flight 188 was out of communication for more than an hour during the incident despite repeated attempts by air traffic controllers in two states to reach the airliner, the FAA said in a statement. Northwest's dispatchers also tried eight times to contact the pilots, without response, the agency said.

The pilots violated numerous federal regulations, including failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating their aircraft 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 wrote Cheney in a letter accompanying the revocation order. "NW188 was without communication with any air traffic control facility and with its company dispatcher for a period of 91 minutes (over 1.5 hours) while you were on a frolic of your own. Failing to comply with ATC clearances or instructions while engaged in air carrier operations is extremely reckless."

A similar letter was sent to Cole.

The pilots said they realized they had overshot their destination 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.

The pilots union at Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last year, declined to comment. Earlier, the union had cautioned against a rush to judgment. The pilots told investigators who interviewed them on Sunday that they had no previous accidents or safety incidents.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said in a statement late Tuesday: "The pilots in command of Northwest Flight 188 remain suspended until the conclusion of the investigations into this incident."

Phone messages left at the homes of the pilots were not immediately returned Tuesday night.

One passenger, Lonnie Heidtke of Chippewa Falls, Wis., said he thought it was a stiff penalty for the pilots.

"I feel that the FAA pulling their license seems a little severe, I guess. But at the same time, I think they should not be flying airplanes at least for a while so they have an opportunity to think about this."

Cole and Cheney said they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, 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.