Pilots who overshot airport won't fight losing licenses

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 15, 2010 - 10:52 PM

Two inattentive airline pilots who overshot Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last fall have stopped fighting the government's revocation of their licenses, but they have a shot at getting back into the cockpit.

Under an agreement released Monday, the chance to reapply for licenses could come as early as August.

Northwest Airlines Capt. Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., and First Officer Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., were immersed in their laptop computers when they overshot the airport by 100 miles in October, prompting their suspension from the airline and revocation of their licenses by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The agreement with the FAA emphasizes that neither Cheney nor Cole admits to wrongdoing in the incident and signed the document "in the interest of avoiding further publicity."

It also speeds up the time in which they can apply for licenses to Aug. 29. The two otherwise would have had to wait until Oct. 27 -- a year after the revocation -- to apply for new certificates.

The agreement explains what they must do to qualify for their licenses, including flying with qualified instructors and taking tests. It also says that the two can go to a certified flight school for simulator training.

Whether they resume commercial flying still would hinge on whether Delta Air Lines, which took over Northwest, or another airline takes them on.

On Monday, Delta said the pilots remain suspended with pay pending the outcome of the airline's investigation. "Any status change [to their license] would be independent of the investigation and have no bearing on the final outcome," the statement read.

Delta said that a date to complete the investigation has not been set.

The two had been scheduled to go before a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) administrative law judge in mid-April but the settlement cancels the need for that. By law, pilots have the right to appeal to appeal the FAA's decision to revoke licenses to the NTSB. They appealed in November, but Monday's agreement drops it.

Neither Cole, Cheney nor their attorneys returned phone calls seeking comment. Spokespersons for the Air Line Pilots Association and Delta's union said the union and pilots would have no comment.

On Oct. 21, Flight 188 from San Diego to MSP flew over the Twin Cities at 37,000 feet, with 144 passengers and three other crew members aboard, before radio contact was re-established as the jet was well into Wisconsin. The plane turned around and landed safely about an hour late.

A flight attendant's call to the cockpit of the Airbus A320 apparently jolted the two experienced pilots back to reality after they spent much of the flight griping about a new pilot scheduling system, which they reportedly felt was shortchanging them because of Northwest's acquisition by Delta.

In its revocation order, the FAA said the pilots, both 54, acted "carelessly and recklessly."

In NTSB documents released in December, Cheney expressed remorse, telling investigators: "You don't know how sorry I am." Cole said there was no excuse for failing to monitor the aircraft, saying that they had tunnel vision and were "focused."

The pilots also said they never slept during the flight, as initially speculated.

Star Tribune staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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