FAA chief: Pilots must refocus on professionalism

Northwest plane
The Minneapolis skyline rises through the rain as an arriving Northwest Airlines jet taxis at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday, Oct. 23, 2009. Investigators are looking into a Northwest flight bound for Minneapolis from San Diego which over flew the airport by 150 miles.
AP Photo / Jim Mone

The Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot Minneapolis are part of a larger problem - eroding professionalism among commercial airline pilots, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt said Wednesday.

Babbitt told an international aviation club on Wednesday that aviation is facing an "extreme need to refocus on professionalism." He cited two examples: Northwest Flight 188, which overshot Minneapolis by 150 miles last month, and a regional airliner that crashed earlier this year near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people.

The two Northwest pilots - Capt. Timothy Cheney, 53, of Gig Harbor, Wash., and First Officer, Richard Cole, 54, of Salem, Ore. - told the National Transportation Safety Board they lost track of time and place while working on crew scheduling on their laptops. Air traffic controllers and the airline's dispatchers were unable to communicate with the plane for 91 minutes, raising national security concerns.

In the Buffalo crash, testimony at an NTSB hearing in May indicated the pilots made a series of critical errors just before the plane experienced an aerodynamic stall and plunged to the ground.

A former airline pilot and pilots union president, Babbitt said that in both cases the pilots forgot their first job was to focus on flying the plane.

"I think that this is a sign of a much bigger problem," Babbott said. "I can't regulate professionalism. With everything we know about human factors, there are still those who just ignore the common sense rules of safety."

He contrasted the two incidents with U.S. Airways Flight 1547, whose captain - Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger - made a precision landing in the Hudson after a collision with a flock of geese killed power in both engines just after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York. All 155 people on board were saved, and "Sully" was celebrated as an American hero.

"There was not one second of less than total concentration," Babbitt said. "That crew was the epitome of professionalism and a textbook case of focus by everyone, including the controllers."

In contrast, "the Minneapolis overshoot is a very sad example," Babbitt said in his first public comments on the incident. "As a pilot, it doesn't matter much whether they were using their laptops or re-enacting the Lincoln-Douglas debates - what they did was wrong and they lost total situational awareness. ... They knew a lot better and they were trained a lot better."

The FAA has revoked the pilots' licenses, but they can file an appeal to the NTSB. The pilots told the safety board they didn't have any previous incidents or violations. Cheney was hired by Northwest in 1985 and had about 20,000 hours of flying time, about half of it in the Airbus A320, the type of plane involved in the incident. Cole had about 11,000 hours of flight time, including 5,000 hours in the Airbus A320.

Even before the Northwest incident, Babbitt had been stressing a need to strengthen professionalism among airline pilots, particularly pilots at smaller, regional airlines who often are paid less and have less experience than pilots at major airlines. He has urged veteran pilots to mentor less experienced pilots.

Members of Congress have expressed similar concerns. The House approved a bill last month to toughen requirements for pilot training and experience.

Sen. Bryon Dorgan, chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, said at a hearing last week that he is troubled that the Minneapolis and Buffalo incidents may point to a widespread problem.

"Is this just an aberration?" Dorgan, D-N.D., asked. "The circumstances where we have seen tragedy and the circumstances where we have seen error suggest to me that we need to know a lot more about what's going on in cockpits."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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