Proficient Pilot

Cockpit catnaps

August 1, 1999

Pilots for American Airlines recently made headlines by acknowledging that many of them occasionally take catnaps in the cockpit during flight. In an attempt to calm the public fear and outcry that could result from such adverse publicity, American's management vehemently denied that any of its pilots doze on duty. But who, I wonder, is best informed about suchmatters — the pilots who do the dozing or those asleep behind their desks ignoring the gravity of this problem?

Are American's pilots the only ones to engage in such activity? No way. Having been an airline pilot for 34 years, I guarantee that it happens on every air carrier. It is about time that someone had the courage to begin a dialogue about an industrywide and pervasive problem that for too long has been swept under the carpet and denied. The industry needs to awaken to the realization that archaic duty regulations and scheduling pilots by computer create situations that virtually guarantee flight crew fatigue. This exposé by the American Airlines pilots is long overdue and is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Much could be written about the wide variety of conditions and scenarios that lead to acute fatigue. I doubt that there is an airline pilot alive who hasn't at least propped his head with a hand to prevent it from falling while "resting his eyes," a common cockpit ritual that takes place during the relative calm of cruise flight. The other pilot mans the helm, comforted by the knowledge that his turn will come. I have seen a pilot so tired that he managed to hide his snoozing from an FAA inspector in the jump seat. A snore almost gave him away, but the inspector was asleep too.

Such snoozing obviously is illegal, but it is far safer than forcing the eyes open with toothpicks or passing out at the outer marker. (I have personally observed this a few times.) This is why pilots occasionally take the law into their own hands and rotate short catnaps in the cockpit. "Besides," says one veteran pilot, "there's nothing in the regulations that says we're not allowed to faint." Another captain considers a nap as an extension of his emergency authority: "If my copilot is suffering from sleep deprivation, I'd rather have him take a 'cruise snooze' when there is little to do, because he'll be refreshed when the workload increases."

The publicity generated by the American pilots should serve as a wake-up call to the FAA and to airline management that pilots are not robots with payroll numbers. They are not necessarily rested simply because unrealistic duty regulations and a scheduling computer say that they are and that they will remain so during their assignment.

The industry needs to recognize that under specific conditions naps would enhance safety, not erode it.

Some years ago, NASA conducted a study to determine how tired pilots become on long-range flights and what could be done to mitigate the problem. But a team of rocket scientists was not needed to learn that international and "red-eye" crews are subject to acute fatigue, or to conclude that catnaps in the cockpit should be approved (one pilot at a time, please).

Unfortunately, the study did not go far enough. It failed to investigate domestic oper-ations and how these crews can become equally or more fatigued.

Consider, for example, the case of a TWA Boeing 727 crew heading for Los Angeles at sunrise after a lengthy and demanding duty period on the "backside" of the clock. The pilots failed to respond to their descent clearance from Los Angeles Center because all three of them had involuntarily fallen asleep as a result of fatigue. The pilots finally woke up, but not until after the flight had passed serenely over Los Angeles and was 100 miles out to sea.

Investigation may determine that the recent American Airlines MD-80 accident at Little Rock, Arkansas, was the result of acute fatigue. No, I take that back. The NTSB regards fatigue only as a possibly contributing factor, not a cause.

General aviation pilots also can be victims of acute fatigue. Consider the case of a light twin that was operating VFR late at night and under clear skies over northern New Mexico. The radar plot shows that the aircraft tracked along the airway but failed to make the charted turn over an en route vortac. Instead, the aircraft continued along its original track and into an off-course mountain.

To paraphrase the subsequent NTSB report: The accident was caused by a failure to avoid terrain. Duh! The most probable cause of the accident was that both pilots were asleep. (A reconstruction of the pilots' hectic activities for the previous two days plus the otherwise inexplicable track makes this an easy conclusion to reach.)

One can only wonder how many other accidents have been caused directly by a sleeping pilot or indirectly by a pilot whose decision-making ability is impaired by fatigue. A pilot flying alone is especially vulnerable because no one is available to help him stay awake.

As anyone who has almost fallen asleep behind the wheel of an automobile knows, the best way to combat weariness is to admit that you are tired, land at a suitable airport, and obtain needed rest. Otherwise, fatigue can find a way to put you to sleep — permanently.