A single call from a flight attendant to the pilots of the Northwest Airlines plane that overshot Minneapolis catapulted the cockpit crew from complacency to chaos.
Interviews with the flight crew and other documents released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board indicate the pilots were completely unaware of their predicament until the moment the intercom rang - unaware that they had flown their Airbus A320 with 144 passenger more than 100 miles past their destination, that air traffic controllers and their airline's dispatchers had been struggling to reach them for more than an hour, or that the military was at that moment readying fighter jets for an intercept mission.
Timothy Cheney, the captain of Flight 188, said he looked up from his laptop to discover there was no longer any flight information programmed into the Airbus A320's computer. He said his navigation system showed Duluth, Minnesota, off to his left and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, ahead on the right.
The plane had been out of radio contact for 77 minutes as it flew across a broad swath of the country on Oct. 21, raising national security concerns.
Cheney, 54, and First Officer Richard Cole, 54, told investigators they had taken out their laptops and were absorbed in working on a complicated crew scheduling program that they were required to learn following Delta Air Lines' aquisition of Northwest a year earlier.
The tension of the moment was evident in the crew interviews.
According to a statement signed by flight attendant Barbara Logan, she called the cockpit around 8:15 p.m. CDT to find out when they would be landing. She was told they would land around 12 Greenwich Mean Time. "I said I did not know the time - he said I was hosed and hung up."
The lead flight attendant called to get gate information and was apparently also hung up on, according to Logan's report. That flight attendant later got through to the cockpit.
It turns out Flight 188 wasn't the only Northwest operation that was hard to reach that night. A controller who called Northwest Airlines' dispatchers to ask them to contact the plane first encountered a recording telling him the phone number had been changed. He dialed the new number, but the phone rang 10 to 20 times without being answered, he told investigators. He hung up, then redialed.
This time, someone at Northwest Airlines dispatchers' office answered the phone - and put him on hold for a few minutes. The controller said he stayed on the phone rather than try calling again because it had been so hard to get through.
Northwest Airlines dispatchers sent messages to the cockpit asking them to contact air traffic controllers, but there was no response.
The Federal Aviation Administration has since said the phone numbers controllers had for Northwest predated its acquisition by Delta and have now been updated.