Revoked!

Revoked.

It’s a word that most pilots hope to never hear from the FAA. To have your pilot certificate revoked means that the FAA takes your license away, cancels it, nullifies it. It’s as if you never even had a pilot’s license.

Today, the FAA revoked the certificates of Captain Cheney and First Officer Cole, pilots of Northwest Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis on October 21st. The Airbus A-320 flew right past Minneapolis…and another 150 miles beyond, in spite of numerous calls from air traffic control and the airline. Neither pilot noticed the lack of communication from ATC for 78 minutes.

In interviews with the NTSB, the pilots said they had been distracted by use of their laptops, as the first officer explained the airline’s new crew scheduling program to the captain. That’s certainly an understandable scenario, had it not been for the fact that personal laptop usage is prohibited in the cockpit by their employer. And it certainly doesn’t honor the most important thing on our priority list: flying the airplane. That’s always “Job One.” No Matter What.

It’s amazing that the Airbus had enough fuel to fly 150 miles past their destination, then fly that same distance back to Minnie, with the reduced fuel loads dictated by fuel conservation that have become the norm these days. I’d bet there were a few moments of concern about fuel quantity on that return leg.

Though most pilots have missed a frequency change and experienced a bit of radio silence from time to time, it’s a little hard to understand how one could sit there — however preoccupied — for over an hour without wondering why you haven’t talked to someone on the ground. Perhaps there’s more to the story than the NTSB or FAA has reported.

Though the emergency revocation of both pilot certificates less than a week after the incident seems rather sudden, coming from an agency that is better known for its glacial speed than swift action, it reflects the FAA’s judgment that the two pilots were derelict in their duties to provide a safe flight for their 144 passengers and three flight attendants. It’s hard to argue that judgment.

There’s an old saying in this business that it only takes a few seconds to screw up a perfectly good 30-year airline career. Moral of the story: Don’t forget “Job One.”

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