Flying while distracted? Northwest pilots say they used laptops.

Pilots of the Northwest flight that overshot Minneapolis by 150 miles say they were looking at their laptops. Skeptical experts say longer-lasting recorders would have helped understand what happened in the cockpit.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A Northwest Airlines jet kicks up water as it races down the runway for takeoff past a Delta jet at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Oct. 23.
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The pilots on last week's wayward Northwest Airlines flight have given their official story: They were looking at laptop computers and discussing their employer's work-schedule system.

Case closed?

Hardly. Not when Flight 188 flew past its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles. Not when traffic controllers had tried numerous times to reach the pilots, in vain.

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But at least the flight crew's explanation, reported by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Monday, provides a scrap of information on a mystery that has baffled the public and aviation experts since the incident occurred last Wednesday night.

The flight's captain, Timothy Cheney, and first officer, Richard Cole, told investigators that they both had their laptops out while the first officer, who had more experience with scheduling, instructed the captain on monthly flight-crew scheduling – something that has been evolving due to a recent merger of Northwest with Delta. The pilots did not realize their mistake until contacted by a flight attendant, the NTSB said. The board's investigation is continuing.

It's possible that this incident will amplify calls for commercial airline flights to have cockpit voice recorders that capture at least two hours of audio – so more independent information is available on what happens in such incidents. Many flights already do that, but the Airbus A-320 plane on last week's Minneapolis flight had an older voice recorder that leaves investigators with only a 30-minute tape. Flight 188 overshot by so much that the final 30 minutes of the flight includes dialogue taped after the flight crew was correcting course.

"We need to move to the modern standard of having two hours" of flight time recorded, says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, which represents airline passengers on issues of safety and service.

His organization and others focused on air safety also support the use of video cameras to capture cockpit activities during flights. Pilots unions, however, have traditionally resisted moves that open their workplace to greater scrutiny.

Will the Minneapolis overshoot, which ended safely for the 144 passengers on board, bring tighter oversight of flight crews? While it's too soon to know, the incident has garnered national attention.

One of the pilots, Mr. Cole, told reporters over the weekend that the flight crew's actions were "innocuous" and didn't threaten passenger safety.

On one level, that may be true. The pilots, who had earlier said they were arguing over airline policy, told investigators they were not asleep, fatigued, or arguing.

But commercial pilots, with the safety of many people in their hands, aren't supposed to lose contact with traffic controllers for an extended period of time, as this crew did for more than an hour. And Northwest has a policy against using laptops in the cockpit.

"It strains credulity that they were so busy on their laptops and talking that they didn't pay attention to their primary duties," Mr. Stempler says.

"It's inexcusable," former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall told AP. "I feel sorry for the individuals involved, but this was certainly not an innocuous event. This was a significant breach of aviation safety and aviation security."

In addition to radio attempts by air traffic controllers, other pilots in the vicinity tried reaching the plane, and Northwest tried contacting them using a radio text message that chimes. Fighter jets were readied for takeoff to intercept the plane, but did not take off as the crew reestablished radio contact.

• Material from the Associated Press has been used in the report.

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