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Audio Tapes of ‘Distracted’ Pilots Released

Air-traffic controllers repeatedly gave instructions to change the course of a Northwest Airlines jet that had been out of radio contact for more than an hour as a test to ensure that it had not been hijacked, according to transcripts released Friday.

Controllers also asked the two pilots several times to explain why they had flown so long without talking to ground controllers.

"I just have to verify that the cockpit is secure," said a controller at Minneapolis Center 86 seconds after the errant flight resumed radio transmissions.

"It is secure," radioed one of the pilots. "We got distracted."

Capt. Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., and co-pilot Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., told investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board that their Oct. 21 odyssey occurred because they had been working on their private laptops in an attempt to understand a new crew scheduling program, which had been introduced by Delta Air Lines. Delta owns Northwest.

The Federal Aviation Administration revoked their licenses shortly after the incident, charging that they had been "reckless." The pilots flew one hour and 17 minutes without talking to controllers, cruising more than 150 miles past their destination in Minneapolis.

The pilots have appealed their license revocations.

The incident began routinely, according to the transcripts released by the FAA. A controller in the FAA's Denver Center, which oversees the skies over several states surrounding Colorado, told the pilots to contact another controller.

"OK," responded one of the pilots, repeating the instructions.

However, the pilots apparently never contacted the next controller. Mishaps in which pilots briefly lose contact with controllers are relatively common but almost never last as long as the Northwest incident.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said earlier this month that FAA controllers had not reacted swiftly enough to the lack of radio contact and the transcripts indicate that the jet passed through the control of two controllers before a third controller raised alarms about the jet.

About 35 minutes after the Northwest pilots' last contact, this controller began telephoning other controllers and notified air traffic managers, who contacted Delta.

As the jet flew at 37,000 feet toward Minneapolis, a succession of controllers tried to reach it on the radio. But it's possible the Northwest pilots never heard them because the attempts were made on radio frequencies the jet was not tuned to, according to the transcripts.

Finally, at 8:14:06 p.m. CT, the pilots radioed a controller in Minneapolis Center, which oversees the upper Midwest states.

"Minneapolis, Northwest one-eighty-eight," said a pilot, identifying himself with the jet's flight number, 188.

Controllers were careful to ensure that the jet had enough fuel after flying well beyond its destination. The pilots assured them that they had enough reserve to fly for two hours.

The controllers quizzed the pilots several times about what had happened.

"Northwest one-eighty-eight, ah, do you have time to give a brief explanation on what happened?" asked one.

"Ah, just cockpit distractions. That's all I can say," came the response.

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