When the Feds Revoke Your Pilot’s Certificate

By Robert Mark on November 4th, 2009

You NEVER, EVER want to receive a letter like this one from the FAA telling you that all your months or years of hard work and effort to win your pilot’s certificate have just gone up in smoke. After flying past Minneapolis a few weeks back, the FAA pulled the certificates of both of the Air Transport rated pilots aboard NWA 1588 as you can read in this letter from the FAA shared with me by a Jetwhine reader.

Pilot cert Read it and commit today that you’ll never let this happen to you because you were derelict in your duty as the Pilot in Command (PIC) of a flight, whether that’s as the pilot of a Boeing 777 or a Cirrus SR-20.

This incident never should have happened, but it did. One reader said it simply and succinctly, “I don’t care what they say they were doing, they weren’t doing what they should have been doing.”

These two pilots paid dearly for their mistakes – with their careers, in fact – which, as our certificates say was a privilege anyway.

Rob Mark, editor


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35 Responses to “When the Feds Revoke Your Pilot’s Certificate”

  1. Chris C. Says:

    FYI — it looks like you tried to redact all instances of personal information, but forgot to block out the pilot cert number on page 4…

  2. Bill Says:

    A very scary letter. Can you imagine having to show one of those to your wife?

    Sounds like Richard Lewis Faber, the lawyer who wrote the letter, was foaming at the mouth mad when he wrote it (“you were on a frolic of your own”.) Is that a legal term?

    Do ya figure he’s ever had a moment of unprofessional behavior in his career?

    Reminds me of the attitude of Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York who made his name as an aggressive prosecutor of corporate fraud and organized crime who all the while had been involved in a prostitution ring.

    And Emergency Revocation? Gimme a break. Maybe that’s the standard FAA language, but these guys weren’t going anywhere.

  3. Robert Mark Says:

    Interesting point Bill. Of course the feds were almost backed into a corner on this one because of all the media coverage, which brings up another point.

    Chris commented earlier on the neglected blackout of the cert# on the last page. I am not the originator of this document, simply another in a long line of people who have passed it along, hence that error, I think.

    ALPA was enraged at the way the information on what these two guys told the FBI, and the NTSB became public, as well they should have been. I would think they filed an ASRS form, although I’m not sure it would have helped in this case re your comments from the attorney.

    In any case, that info should NEVER have gone public, or what it the point of filing them?

  4. Bill Says:

    Knee-jerk reactions make poor policy, and it seems to me that Babbit is twitching along with all the politicians to look tough on the issue.
    Case in point:
    Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced a bill Thursday to ban nonessential electronics, including personal laptops, from the cockpit.
    “We simply want to ensure that, with all of the electronic distractions available these days, flying the plane remains the one and only focus,” Menendez said in a statement.
    Politicians lecturing others about professional behavior – now I’ve heard everything!

    I agree that the leaks were severe and unacceptable. An AP report out today said:
    “Responding to criticism that the pilots’ voluntary statements to NTSB were unfairly “exploited,” Babbitt said his decision to revoke their licenses was not based on those comments or information they provided as part of the Aviation Safety Action Program, which allows pilots to report safety lapses without fear of punishment. “We used none of the data divulged under ASAP or given to the NTSB,” he said. “ATC tapes were the sole source of our information. . .The last thing I want to do is damage the ASAP reporting system.”

    Still, pilots’ voluntary statements to NTSB WERE unfairly exploited. I’d like to see equal an Emergency Dismissal of the leaking lips!

    Still, I don’t think what they let happen was OK by any means, but was it more unsafe than landing on a taxiway? You’ll have a hard time convincing me of that!

  5. NWA 1588 verlieren ihre Pilotenlizenz | Vielflieger Blog Says:

    […] Flugaufsicherheitsbehörde FAA aussieht der diese Strafe ankündigt kann dies bei JetWhine tun. Ein Leser dieses Blogs konnte eine Kopie des Briefes an einen der NWA Piloten anfertigen. […]

  6. FAA Test Says:

    No one would like to receive such letter.I have heard that those pilots were sleeping on their duty.

  7. Al Says:


    I’m a retired military aviator who had to investigate more eggregious saftey infractions in my 29 years of service than I care to think of. There is a big difference between evaluating the technical skill of a pilot and evaluating whether they exhibit the judgment necessary to fulfill the responsibilities for being at the controls.

    The actions of these two pilots are simply beyond tolerance. While landing on a taxiway is indeed a significant error in judgement, it is an error made in the attempted execution of an approach – the pilots were trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to operate the aircraft. The two NW fools had, for all intents and purposes, absented themselves from their duties in the cockpit for one and one half hours, while claiming to be involved in extraneous activities having nothing to do with the operation of the aircraft, was totally unnecessary at the time and prohibited by company safety rules. The two incidents defy comparison.

    That the pilots exceed the limits of their ATC clearance demonstrated that they did not know where they were. Why did they not know? Because, by their own statements, they both chose to remove themselves from any involvement in the operation of the aircraft. Did they not even turn down the radio volume so as not to be disturbed? Not instrument failure. Not inexperience. Not confusion or misinterpretation of the information available. Not due to uncontrollable cockpit distractions. They simply decided that a learning a software package for crew scheduling was more important that participating in the safe operation of their aircraft – for 91 minutes.

    Having dealt,as a both commander and flying evaluation board member, with aviators under review for suspension/revokation arising from unsafe actions, I can assure you that falling asleeep would be seen as a less eggregious lapse than willfully “abandoning one’s post” in the cockpit. One can marginally claim that one did not intentionally fall asleep, did not realize one was fatigued, etc. The actions of these two was fully elective and fully by their own willful choice. And, frightenly, two experienced pilots decided together to absent themselves from their cockpit duties with mutual consent.

    One can moan and groan about how the FAA and or any other supervisory authority handled the announcements and release of information. The fact remains that these two clowns set a new “standard” of irresponsible behavior that, in my experience, should preclude them from flying duties for the rest of their lives.

  8. Kevin Says:

    Its no wonder so many people are afraid to fly.

  9. Gene The Marine Says:

    What about the people on the ground and their life safety?

    Now the FAA Reauthorization Bill is pending before the Finance Comte. Let’s send them a message as well: Put in the safeguards so the FAA does not run like a drunken pilot through a hotel bedroom with his pants down too!

    Let’s see what else can the aviation industry attempt to destroy us with:

    – Cracked bulkheads in some older MD-80’s
    – Air Bus 320 and 380 engines failing while
    in flight.
    – Pilots landing on taxiways ?
    – 4,000 drunken pilots – recovering ?
    – Pilots forgetting to put the landing gear
    down ?
    – Techs placing towels in the engines to soak
    up excess oil ?
    – U.S. Planes being serviced by foreign in
    foreign countires ?

    And the FAA wasn’t Air Space Redesign and Next Gen to all go nicely ?????

    Give me a break!

    Thank you.
    The people down here on the grown!

  10. Andrew Says:

    I too concur that the government acted properly here. the pilots would have been better off saying they fell asleep. at least that would have been somewhat involuntary.

    a technical question.. the letter says the FAA revoked their “ATP” certificate… does that mean all of their pilot certficates and ratings are revoked?

  11. bert Says:

    Give them another chance and no commercial pilot will ever make the same mistake. bert

  12. Mike Says:

    I wonder what kind of information they will get from pilots the next time something goes wrong. I bet it wont be much..

  13. Al Says:

    “Give them another chance and no commercial pilot will ever make the same mistake”

    It is not solely a matter of whether one of us will make the same mistake as they made. It is a matter, in the measured judgment of those responsible for determining who is allowed to execute the duties of a pilot, as to whether these two pilots exhibited the judgment necessary to be trusted with the controls of an aircraft. Not how skilled they are in manipulating those controls, but the judgment they display in the cockpit. If two “experienced” pilots see themselves “above the rules” in such an eggregious manner, for such an extended period of time, they are not worthy of the special trust and confidence so necessary in putting an airline pilot at the controls. The problem is not that they got caught. Even if they had not been caught, the actions were reckless.

    I must admit that my experience differs from pilots who have never been responsible for the actions of other pilots. I still grieve that I did not pursue a flight violation more vigorously against a general’s personal pilot. Almost one year later to the day, that same pilot made the same “harmless” (as he convinced the general) violation of regulations that resulted in the deaths of nine passengers, and the general who so confidently ignored my words came to me and sought my forgiveness. It ain’t about pilots, guys, it’s about the trust that is placed in us and whether or not we fulfill that trust faithfully.

  14. Rob Mark Says:

    I hadn’t thought about these two pilots “abandoning their posts,” as Al mentioned, but there is little other way to look at it I think.

    And like Al too, I don’t believe anyone would be willing to give these two a second chance. The consequences are too grave.

  15. CHARLIE Says:

    What other profession has the possibility of having your “college degree” revoked with no due process whatsoever? They probably should be fired from the airline. They probably should be suspended for a period of time, but to have your ability to make a living in your chosen profession taken away is not right. They have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in type ratings and training. They, as we all do, deserve a second chance. Even doctors make mistakes and go to rehab or get a fine. What would a doctor have to do to have his Medical Degree revoked?

  16. Bill Says:

    I’d venture to say that in order for a doctor to loose his livelihood, he has to kill or injure someone, not just zone out for an hour and a half.

  17. Mike Says:

    I think Al lives in la la land. Do you even know what a pilot does for a living? Before I start I would like to say, what happened with NW188 is not acceptable. But you should know that pilots are just people. Pilots work as much as 16 hours a day (most work at least 10 hours every day they work). One day they may start work at 4am and go to 6pm. The very next day that may start at 6pm and go to 6am (not uncommon). They might fly 6 legs in one day and do 16 legs in four and fly as much as 30 hours, all while being away from home 96 hours and on-duty 48 hours in 4 days. Doesn’t sound THAT bad, now remember most pilots will do this for 35 years strait. Every week minus vacation for 35 years! This illustration is at the major airline level. The commuter pilots only wish they could have a schedule like this. Also remember, if a pilot looses their job they go back to the starting line, no lateral move. In essences they are stuck, no pay raises and no pension plan. Most major airline pilots will get to this point in their career in as little as 10 years or as long as 25 years. Once you reach this point you are ‘in the corner’. Have you ever had a job were their was no potential for advancement? What did you do?

    Pilots at the airlines know how to fly planes. For a pilot with 20 years of flying experience, flying is an easy task. Staying focused to the standard the ignorant public envisions is NOT possible. As the piloting industry continues to loose money, benefits, and days off it will get worse. So ask yourself this, would you rater have an attentive 2,500 hour 5 year pilot flying you around or a 30 year 20,000 hours pilot. Their is no right answer, but if we keep throwing pilots under the bus instead of fixing the real problems you will start seeing more of the former.

    Mike L

  18. Al Says:


    Yes I know what pilots do for a living. Have you ever flown a two year stretch where you averaged 140 hours a month? And when you weren’t in the cockpit you had command and or administrative duties? Have you spent non-flying days with infantry units in combat as a liaison officer, and had it considered “crew rest”. Ever flown three consecutive 16 hour flight days without an auto pilot making an average of three approaches and takeoffs per hour, at or near max gross weight?

    The most “demanding” load allowed for a regional pilot (FAR 135.265(a)) allow a max of:

    1,200 hour in any calendar year.
    120 hours in any calendar month.
    34 hours in any 7 consecutive days.

    I broke 150 hours in a month on four occasions, 160 on another and averaged nearly 1,700 hours in each of those two years I mentioned above.

    In my 29 years of aviation, I served as a line pilot, commander of aviation units from platoon (8 aircraft, 16 pilots, 32 enlisted) to brigade (205 aircraft, 450 pilots and 1,200 enlisted), initial entry flight instructor, maintenance battalion commander, maintenance test pilot, aircraft mishap investigator and more.

    Yeah, I know what a pilot does, and I know a fair amount about training, evaluating and managing pilots, as well as judging their suitability for continued aviation service.

    No matter haw many hours those two buffons work per month, or flying hours they have accumulated, or skill they may have at the controls, together they chose to abandon their posts in the cockpit for 91 minutes to engage in an activity specifically prohibited by their company. They disqualified themselves from further flying service.

  19. Bill Says:

    Well, it’s obvious that Al is a “tough on crime” kind of guy that has never made an error in judgement, or made even the smallest deviation from the published rules his entire life. I am happy for him.

    However, if he does, I would expect him to immediately resign.

    There is no evidence, that I am aware of, that points to either one of these individuals being habitually lax in their duties.

    Not everyone agrees that the “throw them under the bus” approach is necessary or appropriate.

    I know of worse mistakes made by pilots that are still working (and successfully so) – they were just lucky enough to not be center stage in the media circus.

    Funny, I Googled “quick to judge” and found this:

    “…Thus is the basis of their judgement, a feeble attempt to vindicate themselves to make themselves feel superior to another, ignoring their own iniquities at the benefit of watching another suffer or causing them discomfort or pain. We are all susceptible to this psychological disease, it leads to all points negative, and it can and has stem’ed into racist views, and worse case scenario violence.

    Humans love to watch each other suffer, so long as the victim is not one of their own, just turn on the TV and see the suffering for yourself, take a peak into the window of the human soul, this disease is rampent through all society’s and none are immune to it’s influence. It is our babaric instincts that rule our instinctive thought patterns and that which influences our decisive judgements of what we believe to be righteous.”

  20. Al Says:


    I never claimed to have been free from error. It is not a joy to serve on Flying Evaluation Boards or make a commander’s decision as to the suitability for continued aviation service about a skilled, trained aviator. There have been cases where my recommendation was remedial training, increased supervision and return to flying status, and there were cases where the facts presented simply called for removal from flying status. As I posted earlier, my view is that of someone who held the responsibility for determining who should or shouldn’t fly, and it is a grave responsibility, because when you allow a pilot who has demonstrated seriously flawed judgment to continue to fly, any subsequent errors he makes are your responsibility as well.

    This is a case where both cockpit crew members chose to stop participating in the operation of their aircraft to engage in a totally non-flying related activity specifically prohibited by their employer. Further, in order to reduce any distraction from their computer activities, they turned down the volume on their radios. As I said above, this was not a “mistake” made in an honest attempt in operating the aircraft, such as landing on a taxiway. They chose to stop being involved in the operation of the aircraft in any way for 91 minutes. They became so engrossed in this voluntary dereliction of their cockpit duties that they flew past their clearance limit. This was not a momentary lapse. It was not a slight diversion of attention. This was not being confused about their duties for a short period of time. They willfully abandoned their posts at the controls to tend to personal concerns that could have, and should have been addressed on the ground. If it were a couple of rookies, this egregious behavior might even have been attributable in inexperience. But it wasn’t a couple of rookies. It was two highly experienced pilots who decided that their aircraft and passengers did not merit any of their attention for 91 minutes.

    This was not a “mistake” as you call it. This was prolonged willful negligence of a special trust. An Airman’s Certificate is a privilege, not a right, and since they felt they did not need to be present for duty while their aircraft was aloft with passengers, they do not deserve the privilege of occupying the cockpit of a commercial aircraft.

  21. Bill Says:

    What is your source for “in order to reduce any distraction from their computer activities, they turned down the volume on their radios” ?
    I suspect that once they missed the call from DEN ARTCC (which may or may not have been their fault) that pretty much silenced the radios right there. (As an aside, NW company datalink messages are not accompanied by an audible tone).
    I do wonder if they were monitoring 121.5.

    Actually, I didn’t call it a “mistake,” though I did refer to other incidents as “worse mistakes.”
    I’ve used in this thread:
    – unprofessional behavior
    – zone out for an hour and a half.
    – an error in judgement
    – deviation from the published rules
    But hey, this is just a blog, not a position paper or legal brief, so, let’s not parse each other’s words too far.

    I’m not their lawyer, nor do I want to be.

    Unfortunately, (or fortunately – depending on how you look at it) neither one of us has interviewed the crew or will get to decide what happens to them.

  22. Al Says:


    One professional journal item (sadly I did not bookmark it) quoted an airline or FAA person who stated that their response to questions about not responding to repeated calls was that “we had turned down the volume.”

    I’m not looking to get in a battle or parsing contest. Having been trained in and served as a mishap investigator, there are aspects of a situation that I look for that I would never have thought about as a line pilot. For example, consider that they ended up some 100 or so miles off course. The investigator’s question would be “Why”? The answer is, without question, “They were not navigating the aircraft, nor keeping up with the autopilot’s navigation of the aircraft.” When the cabin attendant called them to inquire as to what was going on, they were, for all intents and purposes, unaware of their position. Not because of a “mistake”, confusion or poor navigating skills, but because they had willfully been uninvolved in the operation of the aircraft for a prolonged period of time. I won’t even begin to speculate as to what might have occurred if the cabin attendant had not brought their attention back to flying duties. It is disturbing that she had a greater situational awareness than the cockpit crew, however.

    I have had to do inquiries, as a mishap investigator, flight instructor and commander, into countless cases of pilots of all skill levels getting “lost”. Finding out why Pilot A gets lost provides a learning tool for the rest of us. Some got lost because they failed to pay attention to some factor of the flight, and some due to distractions both voluntary and involuntary. And some just did a lousy job of navigating. From a supervisory standpoint, simply choosing to ignore one’s responsibility for knowing where one is when piloting an aircraft is far more indicative of unsuitability for cockpit duties than lousy navigation or a momentary lapse. Hell, I’ve briefly missed a fix, but recovered long before 100 miles had gone by. That happens to all of us.

    Again, my view of the events is shaped by the experiences arising from my assignments in the field. I do not claim any innate superiority, but as I said before, one develops as different perspective when one is responsible for selecting the people who will occupy the cockpit or has to investigate mishaps and see the results of willful human error. And, those progressively responsible assignments made me look more critically at mistakes I made along the way. Thankfully, I never chose to “abandon my post” while flying. My mentors were far too effective for that to happen.

  23. Mike Says:


    To you question, the answer is yes! You are portraying someone in a military field-grade leadership roll (by the way, in order to do that job it keeps you out of the cockpit often). You don’t have the viewpoint of someone who does the SAME THING for extended years (more then 5~10 years), not for a few months at a time). It is fair to say that you missed the point. And yes I do know what it is like in the military world of flying, been there got the t-shirt. One more point, you like most of the bureaucrats point out flying time as the time in the seat and not the time pilots work because this information is easily obtained and misused. The insiders know that the average commuter pilot (of which I am not, but I do have the t-shirt) spends 300-400 hours a month on duty and 400+ hours away from home a month. I don’t have a dog in the fight, but your flight-time statistics are misleading.

    I won’t even dignify the autopilot statement with a full answer. Have you ever been in a turboprop airplane? Only in the last few years have autopilots been more the norm in these type of airplanes.

    And for fun the max gross weight ops is a state of mind, the job doesn’t change (but you are my hero if it helps).

    Al wrote’ “In my 29 years of aviation, I served as a line pilot, commander of aviation units from platoon (8 aircraft, 16 pilots, 32 enlisted) to brigade (205 aircraft, 450 pilots and 1,200 enlisted), initial entry flight instructor, maintenance battalion commander, maintenance test pilot, aircraft mishap investigator and more.
    Yeah, I know what a pilot does, and I know a fair amount about training, evaluating and managing pilots, as well as judging their suitability for continued aviation service.”
    Al, you would make a good airline manager. But this is the problem: you don’t get it! It’s easy to make rules and demand that they be followed. But when the rulebook looks like the phonebook and changes every quarter problems start to develop and no one is interested in exploring the issues related.

    In basic human factors you have to go back to the fundamentals. These guys didn’t get on this flight looking to be the center of attention. They didn’t want to fly over their destination. If what they said is true, they were just passing the time and lost track. It is easy to make an example of them. But you have to wonder how many other are just like them but didn’t get in trouble that day. The naive would say they were the only two. The experienced would say we have a problem. I fall into the ladder, we have a problem and throwing these guys under the bus isn’t going to fix it. The issue I brought up in my original posting goes to how we handle this issue. If a pilot is involved in a situation similar to this one, is he going to be forthright with his statement. What does he have to gain by telling the truth? What does he have to loose by telling the truth. Al, you betting on the fact pilot can’t cover-up mistakes. So it begs the question are we on a witch-hunt or a fact finding mission in order to correct this problem into the future?

    Mike L

  24. Al Says:


    My first 10 years of service involved flying as a line pilot in addition to other duties. My flying time was not reduced to allow for the other duties, my duty schedule was simply extended. And at no time in my career were my flying requirements lessened to allow for my command or other non-cockpit duites.

    Your very statement, “If what they said is true, they were just passing the time and lost track.” Is it your position that cockpit crew members should be allowed to “just pass time” to the exclusion of their assigned duties?

    Yes, I know there are screw offs in the cockpit, and your logic is that confessing to a screw off is sufficient to make the behavior acceptable. I have never held that something is only wrong when one is caught. Many mishaps arising from unsafe behavior occur not on the first occasion, but subsequent occasions. You would be buried under the weight of mishap reports wherein a pilot said, “I don’t understand. It never resulted in a mishap when I did that before.”

    Yeh, Mike, I do get it. The commercial aircraft and cockpit do not exist for the pleasure and gainful employment of the pilot. The pilot exists to operate the aircraft, and the aircraft exists to transport passengers and cargo, safely and expeditiously from Point A to Point B. Yes, that’s a leader/manager viewpoint, and I would suggest that the passengers would more in agreement with that view than one that feels that the cockpit crew is entitled to “just pass time”. And, by the way, that is also what a life long friend and senior instructor pilot for a major airline has said over and over. It’s not just “manager” talk.

    You miss the point, Mike. For 91 minutes, these two guys decided that using their computers for non essential activities was more important than their assigned duties. They didn’t “accidentally get lost”. For an hour and a half, they never made an attempt to know where they were until a cabin attendant contacted them. It’s not just a matter of throwing them under a bus or making an example out of them. They willfully surrendered their privilege of trust. Sure, pilots may lie about doing the same in the future. Your logic places the responsibility for such a lie on the proper enforcement of standards, not on the lack of integrity of such pilots. Pray tell, what violation meets the criteria for removal from flying status in your book?

  25. Robert Mark Says:

    While I agree with much of what I’ve been reading here, I have little sympathy for two pilots who zoned out for 90 minutes.

    I’ve been flying in a two-pilot cockpit for a long time and we seldom seem to make it more than five … maybe 10 before someone might say “sure seems a little quiet, doesn’t it?” But maybe that’s a reflection on how I was trained.

    But asking to feel bad that these two guys were thrown under a bus when they were out of the loop for 90 minutes. That’s pretty tough.

    That being said, an interesting trend has appeared in the Cirrus Sr-22 I teach in at the local flying club and it reflects a different mindset to when I taught people to fly in 150s 30 years ago.

    I sometimes watch relatively low-time pilots climb to altitude and sit and look out the window wondering why they need to work so hard listening to me harp about situational awareness. They don’t need to worry about the autopilot because they turned that thing on at 400 ft. AGL. They go around airspace shown on the MFD and they descend when the little blue destination airport appears there later too.
    I keep failing the damned MFD on them and they keep sighing like I’m imposing on their space.

    There really is something different about how a younger group of pilots learns and interacts with their environment these days.

    So the issue of asking why these guys zoned out is equally as important as whacking them on the license for their mistake. How much of a role did automation play in their distraction?

  26. LEE S Says:



  27. Al Says:


    I think the question you pose is very appropriate. The number of tasks that automation performs today can and does make intellectual or mental involvement with activities like flying less and less continuous and intimate.

    In a discussion on a boating safety related forum, a fellow related the following: He was cruising with his wife and in-laws along the coast in an area where he had not cruised before. He told his father in law, a life long boater, that he really liked navigating with a GPS map plotter because he “always knew exactly where he was”. The father in law asked if he coud browse through the menu and features of the GPS while they cruised and chatted, and of course he said yes. His course line was to simply parallel the coast. So his father in law spent some 25 minutes or so “exploring the features of the GPS”, all the while ensuring that the map display was never visible to his son in law at the helm. Then the father in law turned off the GPS, and asked his son in law where, exactly, he was, handing him the unused and unopened chart book stored near the helm. The son in law said he was truly stumped, and the father in law said, “I hope you now realyize that there is a world of difference between ‘knowing’ where you are and passively accepting a machine’s ‘telling’ you where you are.” The father in law then asked, “When I stopped the screen display, where were we?”. Son in law wasn’t sure, nor did he know how long ago that was. The father in law then told him that navigation is the process of being mentally aware of where you are, where you’ve been and where you are going. “That’s knowing where you are”, he said, and tells him the answers to those two questions, states that they were cruising at 22 knots and points to where they should be on the chart, telling him to turn on the GPS and see if the estimated position was correct, which is was.

    The fellow who made the post said that the lesson he had learned was that when one surrenders to automation, as he did with his GPS, mental involvement with the task at hand is minimal at best. As a result of this experience with his father in law, his charts are now always at hand, and in addition to the GPS, he mentally follows and predicts his course on those charts as he cruises.

    While our generation was schooled to do and had to do a variety of tasks mentally, succeeding generations have had many of these tasks taken over by automation. If one is not required to think, one does not develop the habit of thinking, and very well may not see any utility in thinking. Turn it over to the autopilot and direct your attention to something of greater interest to you.

    So, for what it’s worth, and in the interest of safety, I share the above boating safety anecdote. In many ways, it is very applicable to the question you raised. And there wasn’t even an autopilot involved!

  28. Robert Mark Says:

    I have to laugh a bit when I go to a store and the cleark can’t even figure out the change – even roughly – in their head. They simply comply with the register’s instructions.

    While FAa and the industry is worried about automation training as in how do we make sure folks know how to run the boxes, I’m not so sure any of us have been successful at duplicating that kind of nautical lesson you mentioned.

    And when we do, I’ve had students look at me and say, “Sure. But how likely is that to happen?” Honestly we know it is unlikely too.

    But how do we teach folks to pay attention to a nmachine’s output when it’s almost never wrong? We’re surely missing something here.

  29. Bill Says:

    With credit to ConsumerTraveler.com at:

    -all of the below is quoted from that page. It sheds some additional insight as to how this could have happened. –
    Here is the email from the pilot’s friend, taken from the Dallas Morning News Airline Biz blog.

    I had a one hour conversation with Tim Cheney yesterday and would like to shed some light on what happened to cause the over flight of their destination, MSP.

    Before I begin with details, I wanted to say right up front that although there are many events that helped to cause this, Tim takes full responsibility and places no blame on anyone but himself. He is very humbled by what has happened and fully understands that as captain, he was responsible for the a/c, crew and passengers. That said, he wanted me to know how it all happened. Secondly, he has the full support of his neighbors in Gig Harbor, WA, as well has his church parishioners. One of his neighbors wrote a letter to the Star & Tribune in Minneapolis saying how great a family the Cheney’s were, I agree.

    On their flight from San Diego to Minneapolis, after passing Denver, the f/a called the cockpit to let them know Tim’s crew meal was ready. Tim was the “flying pilot” on this leg, so he told his F/O that when the f/a brings the meal up, he will step back to use the restroom. When Tim returned, the F/A left the cockpit and he began to eat his crew meal. When a pilot leaves to use the restroom, it is customary for the other pilot to brief him on his return on “any changes”, such as altitude, heading, course changes or atc center frequency changes, etc. In this instance, nothing was said….even though the f/o had received a frequency change. The problem that occurred was that the f/o never got a response on the new frequency….it was not the correct frequency….it was a Winnipeg Canada Center Freq.

    Now, Denver Center is trying to get a hold of them because they never checked in, because the f/o had dialed in the wrong freq……that is who called them so many times….but, then there was a shift change at Denver Center and no one briefed the new controller that there was a NORDO A/C (non communications) in their airspace….so, in actuality, atc basically “lost” this a/c…..see Wall Street Journal article below.

    Tim told me he heard atc chatter on the speaker and so never thought they were out of radio range…..but, of course, they were hearing pilots talk on Winnipeg Center. For non-pilots…..when we don’t hear anything for a long while…we ask atc if they are still there….sometimes they are and sometimes you are out of their area and need to find a new frequency. With this chatter going on, there was no concern that they were not being controlled.

    Then Tim told the f/o that the new bidding system was horrible and that his November schedule was not what he hoped for. He mentioned that his son was going into the Army in Dec. and he wanted certain days off so he could see him off…..the f/o said he could help him, he knew more about the new bidding system. Tim got his lap top out and put it on his left leg and showed the f/o how he bid. He told me he had his lap top out for maybe 2 minutes. Then the f/o said that he would show him how to do it on his laptop. He had his laptop out maximum of 5 minutes.

    Let’s also add the 100 kt tail wind that they had to the discussion, not helping matters.

    The f/a’s called the cockpit on the interphone(no they did not kick the door, no, no one was sleeping, no, no one was fighting) and asked when they will get there. They looked at their nav screens and were directly over MSP. Because they had their screens set on the max, 320 kt setting, when the f/o called on the frequency, which of course was Winnipeg Center, he saw Eau Claire and Duluth on his screen. They asked where they were and the f/o told them over Eau Claire, which was not even close, but MSP had disappeared from the screen even though they were right over the city.

    They were, as you all know, vectored all over the sky to determine if they had control of the a/c and Tim kept telling the f/o to tell them they have control they want to land at MSP, etc. They landed with 11,000 pounds of fuel (no they did not come in on fumes, but had 2 hours in an A320) and not but 15 minutes past schedule, even though they left San Diego 35 minutes late due to an atc flow restriction.

    In the jet-way awaiting them were FBI and every other authority you can imagine.

    Aftermath and tidbits:

    Although these pilots filed an NASAP Report, which was designed to have pilots tell the truth about events, so the FAA could learn from them, they had their licenses revoked by the ATL F.A.A. even before they came out of their meeting with NTSB and NASAP meetings.

    ATL FAA is really big on this new regulation which will allow pilots to take a short nap in flight so they will be rested for the approach…they were insistent that they were sleeping.

    MSP FAA, Vance (do not know last name) was the person who handed Tim his revocation letter(which was leaked to the entire world by the ATL FAA). Tim said Vance had tears in his eyes and walked away, said nothing. It was later learned that the entire MSP FAA office did not agree at all with revoking their pilot’s licenses, but had no jurisdiction over the matter, since ATL FAA had control because of Delta.

    The pilots have been to Wash. D.C., ATL and MSP for several meetings. In ATL, they met with the chief pilots and Tim said they could not have been nicer. They are working to resolve this, not to try and fire them. But of course, they will have to get their license back for Delta to consider allowing them to continue flying. The appeal has been files for the FAA to reinstate their licenses or to settle on some form of punishment, etc.

    When Tim and his wife were in MSP for a meeting with the NTSB, they happen to be staying at the same hotel as the NTSB was. The next morning in the lobby, the NTSB official came over to Tim and said he did not know why they even called them in for this event. There was no safety issue. Also, MSP Center informed Delta that there never was a problem and no aircraft were near their plane. Even though no radio communications, they had been followed and separated.

    Yes, the company tried to contact them on ACARS, but the 320 does not have a chime…it has a 30 second light which then extinguishes.
    Tim always has 121.5 tuned, but as we all know as pilots, it can get very noisy at times and we turn it down and sometimes forget to turn it back on. He told me this may have been the case.

    So there were so many factors which helped to cause this episode. Anyone would have likely prevented it…..properly checking in on the new frequency would have been the first one…..

    A note about laptops…..in NWA’s A.O.M (I think it stands for airman’s operation manual), it does not say we can’t use a laptop, however in Delta’s A.O.M., it does, we are transitioning now and we actually have pages from both airlines. When our union showed this to the attorney’s, they could not believe the confusion put on our pilot group. But, D.C. F.A.A. put out a new possible ruling which will disallow all laptops……so stupid, don’t they know Jet Blue has laptops on every aircraft and soon all airliners will for the electronic Jepp charts.

    These are the facts and again, Tim said he feels very bad for the company and the pilots and is hoping for a positive outcome on their appeal. With 24 years at NWA, 21,000 blemish free hours, it would be a mistake to ruin his career over this in my opinion.

  30. Al Says:


    Here’s where the narrative is weak:

    “The problem that occurred was that the f/o never got a response on the new frequency….it was not the correct frequency….it was a Winnipeg Canada Center Freq.” When one does not get a response on a given frequency, one has specific procedures to follow to either establisg contact or determine if there is a comm failure. If followed, the problem would have been solves. Or is is current procedure to try to make contact and then just quit? And, one wonders how many time Winnepeg Center identified themselves in the “chatter” rather than the center they were to to change frequency to and contact.

    The captain said he had his laptop out for only 5 mins when the F/A contacted him, and at that time he was over MSP, his destination. Consequently, the brief lesson in using the laptop began 5 minutes from MSP. One would imagine that when one is within 5 mins of one’s destination, one would be involved in something other than initiating a class in crew scheduling.

    “They looked at their nav screens and were directly over MSP. Because they had their screens set on the max, 320 kt setting, when the f/o called on the frequency, which of course was Winnipeg Center, he saw Eau Claire and Duluth on his screen. They asked where they were and the f/o told them over Eau Claire, which was not even close, but MSP had disappeared from the screen even though they were right over the city.” I can’t begin to make sense out of this, but then I have no familiarity with an A320 “nav screen”. However, once again, if the crew didn’t know where they were, is it the screen at fault or the crew. Again, according to the timeline given, they began their computer activities 5 mins out from MSP. Even if they had a 200 kt tailwind, they should have been computing ground speed and location as part of their navigation responsibilities and known when they were 5 mins out from MSP and realized that such was no time for diddling.

    Pure fluff.

  31. Bill Says:


    I didn’t (in my wildest imagination) expect to change your mind on the subject, but it is additional information that I had not seen before, that I thought was interesting.
    Some I believe (F/O screwing up on the freq change and not confirming contact) some I don’t (laptops only out for 5 min).

    As far as “they should have been computing ground speed,” well, that’s displayed on the Navigation Display (ND) all the time as is lots of other useful info including wind, ETA at next fix, etc.
    There would have also been a top-of-descent arrow, computed by the FMS, that was displayed on the ND when a descent should have been initiated, and a corresponding FMS scratchpad message when this was passed without a descent. (Unlike Boeing’s the Airbus does not require an approach or approach constraint to be programmed to generate it).

  32. Al Says:


    Wasn’t taking issue with you at all. The “explanation” offered simply identified extremely poor cockpit behavior, and in the case of “lost contact”, if the narrative is correct, strongly indicates a failure to follow ATC procedures. They flew about an hour after being told to contact Center on another frequency, yet never did everything required to either make contact or determine why contact was not made. “Contact”, IIRC, is not just “hearing chatter”, and surely Winnepeg Center identified itself during that chatter, which, in the space of an hour, should have spurred some thought in light of the claimed inability to “make contact”.

    And, as I noted, their situational awareness, as the story describes it, was soo lacking that they say they took their laptops out to do whatever it was they wanted to do five minutes before arriving over their destination.

    Yeah, the investigator may very well have lost his cool over this. It staggers the imagination.

  33. Al Says:


    Ok, my background includes years of mishap investigation, flight violation investigations and a couple of Flying Evaluation Boards. The purpose of FEBs is the determination of suitability for continued flying service. I agree that we don’t (either mercifully or not) have access to the actual transcripts of the interviews, nor were we present to conduct the interviews and thus ask questions. So we can only work with what bits and pieces, accurate or inaccurate, that have hit the public domain. I do, however, becaue of my background, think that the Captain had to relate something pretty significant and over the top for the FAA investigator to use the term “frolic” in official communication.

    My experience in crew interviews pertaining to mishaps, flight violations and FEBs is that there are instances where a crew member actually creates a greater case for discipline in presenting his explanation and/or attempt at mitigation than what was available from the external facts alone. Why? Simply because they bring attention to other actions, ommissions, errors and/or attitudes on their part that make the total picture more eggregious than what was previously known.

    As to what was submitted by the friend in Captain Cheney’s defense, the following have no bearing on whether of not Cheney’s behavior on the flight merited punishement:

    1. Whether or not Denver Center lost track of the NORAD at shift change, a pilot is responsible to making contact when a frequency change is given, and when contact isn’t made, there are specific procedures to be followed. The crew of NW 118 did not comply with these procedures. The statement, “but, of course, they were hearing pilots talk on Winnipeg Center. For non-pilots…..when we don’t hear anything for a long while…we ask atc if they are still there….sometimes they are and sometimes you are out of their area and need to find a new frequency. With this chatter going on, there was no concern that they were not being controlled”, is preposterous. “Contact” as defined in the FARs and every initial instrument training program is not simply the presence of “chatter” on a frequency.

    2. The reason NW 118 did not pose a threat to other aircraft was a result of the FAA Controllers perfroming their duties as assigned. NW 118 still violated significant segments of airspace.

    3. Whether or not there was “plenty of fuel on board” has no bearing on the case and does not mitigate the crew’s derelict behavior. Nowhere in my experience of flying regs does it say that an aircrew is granted the right to become voluntarily lost as long as there is enough fuel on board.

    4.Being “vectored” all over the sky has no bearing on the case. Again, the FAA dutifly followed established procedures, put in place for the general safety of the public.

    5. In fact, the only players in this incident who did not follow established procedures were the Center Crew that is said failed to pass on the NORAD, and Captain Cheney and his f/o, who failed to follow several established procedures. Note, however, that the FAA controllers did, once again, resume the attempts to contact NW 118 without having to rely on a flight attendant to bring them back to their assigned duties.

    If anything, between the “facts” offered by Cheney’s friend, seeming ignorance of regulations and the smokescreen he seems to be generating, I would question the friend’s suitability for flight deck duty, if he is indeed a pilot.

    I’ll end with a “war story”. I sat on an FEB for a pilot with many years experience that involved what at first looked like a simple flight violation. No one hurt or the like. In the hearings that followed, to include the FEB, the pilot explained what happened in a manner that confessed to a litany of violations on that flight,all of which he took as a mere matter of course. The junior memeber of the Board, a Flight Surgeon, commented during deliberation, “Do we really overlook 20 years of flying experience because of one dumb flight?” Another member of the Board responded, “If 20 years of experience (he used his fingers to denote quotation marks) resulted in what we have found, do we have the luxury of leaving him in the cockpit until he develops the judgement and respect for his responsibilities that are expected of a fresh flight school graduate?” I’ll leave the findings of the Board for you to imagine.

    I am saddened by the actions the FAA had to take. I am even more saddened that an “experienced” Captain could commit such a series of derelict errors that put the FAA in the position of having to take disciplinary action. No matter how safely they landed, and no matter how close to on time that fiaanl landing was, the Captain willfully abandoned his post, and that is beyond dispute.

  34. J.L.Lee Says:

    Let he who is without sin cast the first Thermos bottle.

    I have been taken on 120 mile TCA tours when ATC is playing Rubicks cube with the traffic, trying to get everyone sorted out during peak. Pulling tickets is not the way!

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