Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Does Falling Asleep at the Controls Make You a Bad Pilot?

A Delta 767 gets intercepted by Greek F-16s after comm loss.
Delta 767 and Greek F-16s in formation.

Not necessarily, though it might very well make you a dead pilot if you were in a single pilot aircraft such as an F-16 or Cessna. But as far as airliners go, if the pilots take a snooze at altitude with the autopilot flying, the airplane stays on course and airspeed. Falling asleep is a physiological incident which can be due to many different reasons, but one thing it is not, is a moral failing. Let me explain.

In a recent event over Greek airspace, a Delta Airlines 767 flying a charter for the US military entered Greek airspace and did not check in with air traffic control. The Greeks then launched two F-16s which intercepted the airliner about 40 minutes after it entered into Greek airspace. Shortly after the intercept, the aircraft reestablished communications with air traffic control and proceded onto its destination of Kuwait.

There have been some unsubstantiated reports in Greek media that the fighter pilots saw the airline pilots unresponsive in their seats. The reports also claim that it was calls from the flight attendants who noticed the intercept which alerted the pilots to the situation.

Delta, for its part, reported that the aircraft couldn't make contact with Greek controllers after their handoff from a previous sector. That's plausible, though losing communications in an extremely busy part of the world for 40 minutes does seem unlikely. Maybe 5 or 10, but 40 is more difficult to swallow.

They Want You to Lose Communication

A little known fact is that many jurisdictions around the world actually love it when an airliner from a wealthy nation flies into their airspace without making contact. They then get to launch an intercept or search and rescue (SAR) forces and then send the bill to whoever has the deepest pockets. That would be Delta and the US government in this case.

Notice that it only took 18 minutes from the time the airliner entered Greek airspace to the launch of the fighters. There are rumors around that Greece itself is in some financial straits. They're smelling a payday. Sure there are legitimate reasons to intercept a comm-out airliner in today's crazy terrorist besotted world, but money also makes a good motivator as well. Win-win I suppose.

At any rate, any pilots worth their salt flying in this part of the world must know that going comm-out while crossing a flight identification region (FIR) boundary while bound for the Middle East will not be good.

So what other reason might there be?

They Were Snoozing (Maybe)

The nature of this job is many days and time zones away from home, back side of the clock flying, lousy diet, and hotel beds which only get the straw changed every other year. I jest about the straw beds, but I often feel like I've slept on one as my back will let me know when trying to roll out of bed. 

My point is that getting a reasonable amount of sleep on the road is a serious challenge, and that is if everything goes right. A noisy or inop air conditioner, maids knocking on the door early in the morning after a late night arrival or my personal favorite, hammer drills in a nearby room from construction crews can make a good night of sleep nearly impossible.

Even though most airlines have good fatigue policies which allow pilots to decline a flight with no sanction, there is no guarantee that halfway through a flight which you felt fine to start that you won't simply find it impossible to keep your eyes open. This can be in the middle of the day, perhaps right after lunch while sitting on the sunny side of the jet.

Do you do what you can to prevent this? Sure. Get up and stretch, get a cup of coffee, or take a restroom break. Even after all that you might still be droopy. So it is by far from implausible that this happened to both of the guys or gals up front.

Are They in Trouble?

No, they are not. As I mentioned above, falling asleep is a physiological incident and not a moral failing. There will be no scene from 12 O'clock High with Gregory Peck chewing out a guard who has fallen asleep at his post. What will happen is the crew will fill out various safety and fatigue reports (if that indeed is what happened) and life will go on. And if it was merely a case of lost comm, mostly the same thing will happen.

Their reports will go into a safety database where de-identified safety data will hopefully guide any policy changes which need to be made. Yea, that may be somewhat idealistic, but the point is the crew will live to fly another day.

And as I always brief to my copilots, I never want to wake up and find them sleeping! (Just kidding!)


  1. Nicely written! Thanks.

  2. Happens in anesthesia also, Captain. There is no copilot to take over when your eyelids feel like bricks. Many nights I would walk around. stomp my feet. or being woken up at 2am on call to do an emergency C section, or worse...brain surgery. To tell you the truth, I think that it is a young persons sport. After 25 years, I took a (9-5) job, and it made the difference, but the damage of never sleeping is still a challange. BTW, I never slept on the job....just barely, however :)

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Capt Rob