Errant Flight 188 cockpit crew mistook Winnipeg for Minneapolis

Northwest Flight 188, which blew past Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport on Oct. 21 by more than 100 miles as air traffic controllers tried in vain to reach its cockpit crew, is the gift that keeps on giving. Pilot Timothy Cheney and co-pilot Richard Cole said they were on their laptops when they should have been landing the plane.

The military said it was ready scramble fighter jets because it was worried the plane had been hijacked. The FAA revoked Cheney's and Cole's licenses, and later released transcripts and audio in which the two can be heard trying to get the flight back on course. Then there was the story about Cole pointing the blame at Cheney as he fought to get his licese reinstated. Now, the National Transportation Safety Board has dumped hundreds of pages of documents on its Web site, covering everything from when the cockpit crew went to the bathroom to how long the pilot has been married. It's a banner day for government transparency.

Deep in one of the documents, we find out that, for at least part of the time during the flight, Cheney and Cole were inadvertantly communicating with air traffic controllers in Winnipeg, rather than Minneapolis. There's a lot of alphabet soup here, but it's worth reading:

The pilots stated that their first indication of anything unusual with the flight occurred when they received a call from a F/A inquiring about their arrival. The captain said he looked down at his Multifunctional Control and Display Unit (MCDU) and saw there was no flight plan information depicted. They said they did not see the lights of Minneapolis due to the overcast sky conditions below. The captain then turned his NAV display from ARC mode to ROSE (compass) and saw Duluth, MN to his left and Eau Claire, WI at "the 2 o'clock" position with no estimated time of arrival (ETA) information shown for their destination. The F/O said he "immediately" contacted ATC, but neither pilot could remember what frequency they used, and said "someone" gave them a frequency to contact MSP Center. It was determined that the crew inadvertently contacted Winnipeg Center, which gave them a frequency to established contact with MSP Center. The F/O then noticed the ACARS message indication on the ECAM, and attempted to retrieve those messages. He stated that he noticed several "contact ATC" messages from dispatch, but "inadvertently" pushed the "delete all" button erasing all the dispatch messages. (Italics added.)

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