Patterico's Pontifications


FAA Revokes Northwest Pilots’ Licenses

Filed under: Air Security — DRJ @ 6:39 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

The Northwest pilots who overshot the Minneapolis airport last week (they claim they became distracted while working on their laptops) have had their licenses revoked by the FAA:

“The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday the pilots had violated numerous regulations, including failing to comply with air traffic control instructions and clearances and operating carelessly and recklessly.

The pilots — first officer Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., and captain Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash. — told investigators they lost track of time and place while working on their laptop computers.”

On Fox’s Red Eye last night, TV’s Andy Levy speculated that the pilots continued flying because they wanted to erase something on the cockpit audiotape. That makes more sense to me than the pilots’ story.


36 Responses to “FAA Revokes Northwest Pilots’ Licenses”

  1. My wife has worked as a flight attendant at American for over 18 years, and she said that she’s never seen a pilot on their laptop or any other personal electronic device while operating the aircraft. So your assumption is likely correct.

    Dmac (5ddc52)

  2. I still hope the passengers got the extra miles on their frequent-flier accounts…

    the friendly grizzly (af1c45)

  3. If there was a normal landing nobody would have listened to the tape.

    rab (7a9e13)

  4. rab,

    I hesitate to speak for Andy but perhaps his point was that when the pilots realized they overshot the airport, they continued for awhile to make sure what they said at the time was erased.

    DRJ (dff2ca)

  5. I think that what they were saying at the time sounded a little like this. “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”

    Gazzer (3bd236)

  6. As an airline pilot, listening to anyone outside the business talk about it is a morbidly fascinating experience…watching TV “personalities” do the same is even more so, kinda like listening to a WalMart greeter talk about brain surgery.

    My apologies to Walmart greeters.

    Anyway, these guys f***ed up and got slammed. It happens, unless you’re a politician, in which case you blame someone else for your mistakes and drive on.

    Frankly, I’m proud of the fact that we are one of the few career fields where we have to routinely demonstrate to an outside rule-making body our professional competence both academically, for lack of a better term, through annual testing, and physically through demonstrating competency in a highly realistic simulator under stressful conditions (bad weather, aircraft malfunctions, etc.). I repeat…they lost their jobs because they deserved to, but they’re one of the few groups that are held accountable for their actions on the job, and rightly so. Welcome the the Land of No Slack.

    As far as the CVR (cockpit voice recorder) goes, those things come on automatically early in the flight sequence and the only way to turn them off, as far as I know, is to pull a circuit breaker. (I’ll go check my manuals and if I’m wrong, I’ll fess up.)

    The only time you do that is when you want to preserve data after the fact, like save your conversations after recovering a broken airplane and technically bending/breaking FAA regs in doing so. On the ground, in the chocks, with engines shut down. NOTE: Even in that case, the Pilot in Command (PIC)–read: Captain–can legally deviate in an emergency. Pulling the C/B preserves the evidence for your sake. Otherwise, the CVR re-records subsequent flights over the previous ones. It’s a continuous-loop system that you only examine in cases where an incident (or mishap), i.e., something out of the ordinary, has occurred.

    Staying up because you wanted to “erase something on the audio tape” makes absolutely ZERO sense. Just imagine the crew-to-dispatch conversation:

    “Why are you guys still airborne?”

    “Uhhh…we…uhh…need to [insert lame excuse here].”

    “Say WHAT!?! Do you know how much fuel COSTS these days?!? Do you realize there are 60 PAX waiting to board that aircraft for the leg to XXX!?!’

    Etc., etc., etc. The company would know if you were delayed for weather, heavy traffic volumes, had an emergency or any other plausible excuse so the above speculation is, well, nonsense.


    But it is fun to listen to people speculate…

    Attila (690c92)

  7. I wonder if FAA was able to keep all crewmembers isolated before debrief, or whether they had time to conspire after landing. The flight attendants on TV today answered rather curtly, I thought.

    gp (213d8e)

  8. I feel badly for them cause of they probably have no idea what they’re going to do and no one got hurt or even startled so I think they should get another chance.

    happyfeet (f62c43)

  9. Attila,

    It’s good to have expert input. Why do you think the pilots did not respond to the air controller’s calls for more than an hour?

    DRJ (dff2ca)

  10. DRJ,

    Well, at first you’d think they were asleep. It happens–hasn’t to me yet (really), but I was just talking yesterday to guy it DID happen to (we were discussing this incident) and he was adamant on how scary it was. But apparently that’s been thoroughly debunked.

    If they had turned down the overhead speaker to near-zero and caught up in a discussion about something, well, OK, maybe. But, at least in my experience, your hair starts to stand up on the back of your head after a certain length of time if nobody’s talked to you in awhile so you start calling just to see if a) your radios have failed, or; b) the controller forgot to pass you to the next sector. Believe it or not, this has happened to me more than once over the southwestern US (usually around Albuquerque for reasons I can’t explain) or in Mexican airspace (for reasons I could probably deduce). Ocean crossings are also problematic (see below).

    What they MAY have done is loaded the wrong route/destination, though, for the life of me, I would have a hard time swallowing. At my company, the captain normally loads the route into the FMS (Flight Management System)–the plane’s central computer–and then the two (or three, or four, depending on whether or not you have an augmented crew for long flights) of you go over the route point by point to make sure the Boss didn’t type in the wrong thing. This is what killed everyone of KAL 007 years ago–erroneous coordinates, or so we think–when they blundered over the USSR and got smoked by Russian MiGs.

    But after watching the video at your link, I’m really scratching my head…

    Ocean crossing comm: At a certain point, your VHF systems can no longer reach back to land-based radar surveillance facilities and you switch to HF (for voice over-the-horizon contact) and a satellite-based digital text messaging system known “CPDLC.” You check in with the oceanic contact service (sometimes a government facility (to/from Europe), sometimes a contracted facility (flying west over the Pacific)) and get what’s called a “SELCAL” (pronounced “sell-call”) check. Each airplane has a unique, 4-letter SELCAL identifier that you pass to the controller who then sends you a SELCAL signal to confirm the alert chime works on your HF radio. After that, it’s talk via typing until you’re back in range of a land-based radar network, assuming you have CPDLC. If not, you have to make HF radio position reports at designated navigation points until you’re back in radio contact. We refer to this procedure as, to use a technical term, “a pain in the a**” but you gotta do what you gotta do for flight following.

    Attila (690c92)

  11. Thank you, Attila. My cousin flew for Delta for years and we used to have a neighbor who flew for American. I’ve heard both say many of the things you’ve said, including that sometimes it can be difficult to stay awake. (Both flew internationally and they said it was particularly hard to stay awake on those flights. They also said it’s hard not to pack on the pounds because the food is so good, but that’s a different story.) It is a strange story, though, don’t you think?

    DRJ (dff2ca)

  12. Also, Attila, as I said in this earlier post, I initially hoped the pilots had fallen asleep. I can understand that more than the alternatives.

    DRJ (dff2ca)

  13. I’m a licensed commercial pilot. I concur with Attila 100%. It’s funny listening to the non pilots speculate.

    Chip Douglas (d9d8ce)

  14. You don’t have to be a pilot to suspect that these pilots have not told the full truth. Their story simply does not square with the known facts at this time. The truth will come out, though, at some point.

    grs (b9e726)

  15. Chip,

    We would all benefit from expert aviation input on this story, so please take this opportunity to educate us instead of mock us.

    DRJ (dff2ca)

  16. That’s OK, DRJ. I work for an airline, and we all get a lot of amusement listening to the pilots go on about stuff they don’t know anything about, too.

    RNB (6a1e7d)

  17. Interesting conversation. I especially like the comments about non-pilots speculating.

    I wonder why there is no similar understand from commenters regardsing fields outside their area of expertise.

    Such as non-scientists opining on science, non-engineers opining on engineering, non-medical people opining on medicine, etc.

    Just because you stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, does not make you the expert on your chosen topic.

    But welcome to the internet: The Largest Water-Cooler in the World ™.

    I’m sure none of you get the point.

    Dr. K (eca563)

  18. Were, by any chance, two stewardesses not seen at their posts in the cabin at that time, as well?

    nk (df76d4)

  19. The queston I have is, have these guys lost their licenses for good, or is there some appeal process, union rules, etc., that might save them? What is the process for something like this?

    BT (74cbec)

  20. There is always an appeals process. But why would you want to save them?

    Unless you want to sign up for flights that these people would be piloting.

    Dr. K (eca563)

  21. Just because you stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, does not make you the expert on your chosen topic.

    But welcome to the internet: The Largest Water-Cooler in the World ™.

    I’m sure none of you get the point.

    Comment by Dr. K — 10/28/2009 @ 4:39 am

    Am following the above conversation with interest but speaking of getting points (and allusions), have been hearing the phrase “Holiday Inn Express” a good bit lately around political sites and Bing-ing doesn’t tell me what I want to know: to what incident does this refer? Thanks.

    no one you know (7a9144)

  22. No One You Know: It’s from a series of Holiday Inn Express TV commercials. The ads show someone offering expert advice to someone else. The second person asks the first: ‘Are you a doctor / explosives expert / rodeo clown?’ and the first says, ‘No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.’

    RNB (6a1e7d)

  23. RNB – LOL thanks

    no one you know (7a9144)

  24. Am following the above conversation with interest but speaking of getting points (and allusions), have been hearing the phrase “Holiday Inn Express” a good bit lately around political sites and Bing-ing doesn’t tell me what I want to know: to what incident does this refer? Thanks.

    Holiday Inn Express had a series of commercials in which people related expertise about some subject of interest. When asked if they were an expert, the tag line reply was: “No but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night”. The ad campaign theme was Stay Smart.

    Laddy (b81eda)

  25. DRJ,

    Rather jump to incorrect conclusions to which thee is absolutely no evidence, I prefer to let the FAA conduct their investigation and wait for the results. Regardless of the cause for this it is inexcusable. I see the pilots have had their licenses revoked which does not come as a surprise. Undoubtedly the pilots will appeal. Personally, I do not think they will be flying again in the near future nor should they.

    Chip Douglas (d9d8ce)

  26. Rather jump to incorrect conclusions to which thee is absolutely no evidence, I prefer to let the FAA conduct their investigation and wait for the result

    OK, but then why did you have to be such a d-ck about it earlier?

    Dmac (5ddc52)

  27. KOYK:

    Apologies, I had seen those ads so much, I thought that everybody had seen them.

    Dr. K (eca563)

  28. Of course, that shoud be NOYK.

    Dr. K (eca563)

  29. #27, Dmac, you have thinner skin than Obama.
    My comment was meant in good sport.

    Chip Douglas (d9d8ce)

  30. I never really understood what was so traumatic about this. Was the plane ever in any trouble or danger, or did it cause same for another plane? Other than being in the air a little longer than expected, had there not been announcements, the passengers likely would have never known.

    JD (b9706a)

  31. #31: JD, “a little longer than expected”? Really.

    Thay overshot by 150 MILES. Then had to go back another 150 MILES. With time factored in for clearance and such, that makes for over an hour of extra time in the air.

    Now what if somebody on that plane had a time critical connection? MSP is a HUB for NW/DL after all. Or other time critical meeting or other deadline? What if somebody was transporting a donor organ?

    Yep, no big deal. after all, no harm, no foul.

    Dr. K (eca563)

  32. DoT is in the process of requiring video/audo monitoring of train-drivers on Amtrak/Commuter lines…it is only a matter of time until the same requirement is in-place for commercial pilots too.
    And why is the FAA still using analog recording devices when digital is available that could monitor complete flights
    (I know, it’s the FAA, and this is a rhetorical question)?

    AD - RtR/OS! (ce9c93)

  33. #17, Dr K, said, “I’m sure none of you get the point.” Well, you’re wrong, I get it Doc.

    It means that even guys who chose to opine on science, engineering, or medicine shouldn’t be ignored because they stay at the Holiday Inn Express. Or because what they say is outside their particular area of expertise. Or because they shoot bunny rabbits, or eat broccoli, or drive ugly cars. It doesn’t even matter if they’re fat. See, I got it right.

    ropelight (fbbed1)

  34. My comment was meant in good sport.

    If that was your intent, then I retract my earlier comment – but there’s no way to discern that kind of context within your initial post.

    Dmac (5ddc52)

  35. Of course, Dr K, you are correct. I was just kind of responding to a breathless interview with a victim/passenger and you would have thought that their lives were hanging in the balance.

    JD (b09d7d)

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