The U.S. military would have launched fighter jets to track down an errant Northwest Airlines flight that overshot the Minneapolis airport if officials had been notified sooner, a top commander said Thursday as federal authorities defended the decision to revoke the licenses of the pilots involved.
Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads U.S. Northern Command, said he learned of the incident just four or five minutes before the Federal Aviation Administration regained contact with the pilots, who flew 150 miles past their destination. They have said they got distracted while using their laptops in the cockpit.
Renuart said fighter jets were taxiing to the runway and should have been airborne, but they were held back when FAA officials told military commanders they thought they were re-establishing contact with the flight.
The military's revelations came as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress that the public deserves more professionalism from pilots.
"You can't have pilots sitting in front of a laptop when they're supposed to be flying a plane at 30- or 40,000 feet in the air with over a hundred passengers on board," said LaHood. "That would be like a bus driver sitting with a laptop going 65 miles an hour down the road."
The Air Line Pilots Association, meanwhile, sent letters Thursday to National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt complaining that the agencies had released details of the incident to the media before the investigations are complete.
The pilots told safety investigators they lost track of time and place while using their laptops to work out crew schedules, They were out of contact with air traffic controllers for 91 minutes.
While Renuart would not disclose the precise timetable of events, he said his staff was aware of the problem for roughly 10 minutes and had just alerted the fighter aircraft before they told him about Flight 188 - a gap he also said must be corrected.
It appears the FAA had been out of contact with the flight for at least an hour at that point.
"It is fair to say that it took longer than I would have liked," said Renuart, adding that Northern Command is doing an internal review of the incident. He said the incident was an anomaly but that the delays must be corrected.
As the fighters were heading to the runway, FAA officials told Northern Command they thought they were getting radio contact back with the airliner, so the fighters were told to stop. Two to three minutes later, the FAA said it had contacted the pilots.
"Part of our afterglow of this is - launch the airplanes, and then we'll sort it out later," Renuart said, responding to questions during a talk at the Center for National Policy.
U.S. Northern Command was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and it is linked to the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Fighter jets are routinely launched in response to similar incidents of suspicious aircraft activity.
"This is a good wake-up call for us," said Renuart. "I think in some cases we had become comfortable with the level of activity. We have to remember that these things occur with no notice. We have to be agile and responsive."
Babbitt also acknowledged that air traffic controllers didn't notify the military as quickly as they should have.
The pilots union, whose members include the flight's two pilots, said the pilots may be reluctant to talk to investigators or participate in voluntary safety programs if they believe their conversations will be released publicly.
"The release of information, even factually accurate information, before the investigatory process is permitted to work allows it to become sensationalized by the news media and distracts from the goal of accident investigation," John Prater, the pilots union president, said in a statement.
On Monday, NTSB released a description of the pilots' accounts of what had occurred during flight. On Tuesday, the FAA announced it was revoking their licenses and released letters to the pilots chastising them for their behavior.
Several senators complained Thursday about how long it took the FAA to notify the military, and they asked Hersman to include that in the NTSB investigation.
Hersman expressed reluctance to expand the board's investigation beyond the safety issues, saying that may be an issue for the FAA to review. ---
Associated Press writers Joan Lowy and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.
On the Net: FAA: http://www.faa.gov/ U.S. Northern Command: http://www.northcom.mil/
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)