2008 National CFI of the Year Comments on Distracted Northwest Pilots
October 29, 2009 — The FAA Tuesday revoked the pilot certificates of the Northwest flight 188 crew which last week flew an estimated 150 miles past their destination at cruising altitude and did not communicate with air traffic controllers or airline dispatchers for over an hour. Capt. Timothy B. Cheney and first officer Richard I. Cole told National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators that they became distracted while using their personal laptops to learn new crew scheduling software that was put into use as part of Northwest’s merger with Delta airlines.
“Regardless of what happened in that cockpit - and we may never know for sure - what we do know is they lost situational awareness, and that’s probably the most critical thing for a pilot to have,” commented Max Trescott, 2008 National CFI of the Year and author of several books on technology in the cockpit.
In issuing the emergency certificate revocation, the FAA cited several violations of regulations including failure to comply with air traffic control instructions and operating carelessly and recklessly. There is no regulation against personal electronics or other non-essential items in the cockpit however standard industry practices and many commercial operators prohibit the use of non-essential items during some or all phases of flight.
Trescott said that the location of the side-stick flight control in the Airbus A320 (the aircraft the pilots were flying) leaves an open space in front of each pilot. Airbus put a pull-out tray that has many functions but in this case was perfect for setting a laptop, “When you open up the laptop, the display obscures the aircraft instruments behind it,” he said.
The pilots have 10 days to appeal the certificate action. If the appeal is denied, they can re-apply for a license after one year.