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Fifteen minutes after Northwest Airlines Flight 188 was supposed to land in the Twin Cities on Oct. 21, flight attendant Barbara Logan glanced at her watch and decided to call the cockpit.
The buzzer from her call was apparently what jolted the two experienced pilots back to reality after they spent much of the flight griping about the new pilot scheduling system, which they felt was shortchanging them because of Northwest's acquisition by Delta Air Lines. But by then, the Airbus A320 had already been out of radio contact for 77 minutes, flying over the Twin Cities at 37,000 feet before contact was re-established well into Wisconsin.
"Are we going to get there anytime before midnight?" she joked, according to documents released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The pilot who answered, she said, sounded "a little surprised" before replying that they would arrive by midnight Greenwich Mean Time. She replied that she didn't know what that was, and he joked that she was in trouble for not knowing.
But the pilots were the ones in trouble. They then realized they were over Eau Claire, Wis., and would have to turn around to get to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Logan's testimony was included in 400 pages of investigative materials made public about the San Diego to Twin Cities flight that mystified the nation by overshooting its destination by 100 miles, the pilots seemingly oblivious to their position.
The release of the raw reports does not include a conclusion about the cause of the incident; that will come later. But what stands out is how easily and completely the pilots lost track of time and their jobs: monitoring flight systems and staying in contact with air traffic controllers.
Also public for the first time: an expression of remorse. "You don't know how sorry I am," Capt. Timothy Cheney told investigators.
First Officer Richard Cole, of Salem, Ore., said he learned at the start of the trip that he did not get the vacation time he wanted. Cole told Cheney, of Gig Harbor, Wash., that he was frustrated and was going to have to take what they gave him.
About an hour into the flight, the report said, they began to discuss the new merged scheduling system. Cheney, who had been a senior pilot with Northwest, was "fairly upset" that he did not get the schedule for November that he wanted and that the new system gave him different trips that meant he had to come to work a day earlier, losing time with his family. Cole, who knew the system, then offered to help Cheney learn it and they both had their laptops out in violation of company policy.
"They were still hearing radio calls and communications but never recognized they were being called," the report said.
Cole said there was no excuse for failing to monitor the aircraft, saying that they had tunnel vision and were "focused."
Cheney said the conversation on how to bid was never supposed to go as long as it did. "This was only supposed to take 10 minutes," he told investigators, saying that he was "blown away" with how long the conversation lasted. He said he was embarrassed and "let another force come from the outside and distract me."
In 24 years of flying, he said he had never put passengers at risk or been in this situation.
Cole said they both had their computers open until they got the call from the flight attendant, asking when they were going to land.
The Federal Aviation Administration has revoked the licenses of the pilots, both 54, saying they acted "carelessly and recklessly." The pilots have appealed. Delta Air Lines, which operates Northwest as a subsidiary, has suspended the pilots.
"We're seeing more detail and background on how this event happened, but it doesn't change the fact that this was extreme negligence on their parts," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a group based near Washington. Voss added the two were the "professionals on the flight deck" and made choices that caused them to become distracted.
The pilots also said they never slept during the flight, which had been initially speculated. But Voss said that sleeping, in some ways, could be seen as more forgivable than inattention. "Everyone can be subjected to fatigue, but it's by choice that you let yourself become inattentive."
When Logan called the cockpit about 8:15 p.m. CDT to ask about the arrival time, Cheney looked at the flight display unit and saw there was no flight plan, according to the documents. He turned to a different display, which showed Duluth to his left and Eau Claire, Wis., "at the 2 o'clock" position with no estimated time of arrival (ETA) information shown for their destination, the documents said.
"We just flew over the Minneapolis airport," Cheney told Cole. He told Cole to contact air traffic control because "we need to get this thing on the ground."
Cole said he "immediately" contacted air-traffic control. But they had been tuned into the Winnipeg air traffic control center, which gave them a frequency to establish contact with the Twin Cities. The plane landed safely shortly after 9 p.m.
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707 Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482