Never Again: To sleep, perchance to dream

A sobering moment over Texas

March 1, 2013

never again

Never Again

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Before earning my private pilot certificate in 1985, a veteran Air Force pilot told me flying is hours of boredom broken by moments of sheer terror. What I hadn’t anticipated was how easily one could lead to the other.

I’m writing this while flying to Dallas from Florida on an American Airlines jet. I had been in Miami and Tampa for two days evaluating new medical technologies that might be of interest to national and local media. One of the more interesting advances was for obstructive sleep apnea, which often is associated with loud snoring and gasping for breath. It’s a huge problem afflicting more than 23 million Americans, including one-fourth of adult males—and the wildly overweight guy in the seat behind mine. He apparently has a pair of radial engines running at operating limits in his throat.

Ironically, I had slept terribly the previous two nights of this trip. I was wide awake that evening and passed the time searching the Internet for a variety of information on sleep and aviation.

An Air India crash in 2010 killed 158 people and was blamed on a sleeping pilot.

News.com.au reported half of all Norwegian airline pilots admitted to falling asleep in the cockpit.

After the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air flight near Buffalo, New York, the FAA passed a rule change in late 2011 requiring that the maximum time a professional pilot can be scheduled on duty is nine to 14 hours, and minimum rest periods are 10 hours. The pilot must have an opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep during that rest period.

There also was a 2010 news article describing how the pilot of a Scandinavian Airlines Boeing 737 fell into such a deep slumber after his co-pilot went to the restroom, he was difficult to wake up. So what? When the co-pilot returned from the lavatory, he had been locked out of the cockpit. He rang the doorbell multiple times before the “temporarily disoriented” captain woke up. Fortunately, the autopilot was on.

In a report, the captain said he had slept just four hours the previous night, and had been scheduled for five short flights. He fell asleep on the fourth.

Despite decades of intensive research, sleep isn’t fully understood. There’s general agreement that extended rest helps cells repair themselves, and that sleep timing is controlled by an internal circadian clock that’s linked to hormones and other stimuli. Amusingly, a National Geographic magazine article quoted 84-year-old Dr. William Dement, who founded Stanford University’s renowned Sleep Research Center more than 50 years ago. After a lifetime of study, he said, “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.”

Thinking about that transported me back to July 2000 when my 8-year-old son and I were preparing a return flight from Houston to Dallas in our 1970 Cessna Centurion. The forecast was clear, but it was hot and humid, as usual. My son had spent the day visiting his grandparents while I attended various medical technology meetings. We had flown in early that morning to beat the heat, and I was more than ready to get home.

After preflighting the airplane, buckling my son into the second row of seats, and starting the engine, I departed Sugar Land Regional Airport and requested flight following. I climbed to 8,500 feet, and we were soon clipping along at 160 knots groundspeed.

A big strength of Centurions is their stability. They plow through rough air that would unsettle a smaller airplane, and the 300-horsepower Continental turns the three-blade McCauley prop with a reassuring drone. Looking over my shoulder and seeing my young son already asleep made me smile.

As much as I love any kind of flying, I’ll be honest: The flight between Houston and Dallas is incredibly boring, which is one reason I activated the Century autopilot. That let me scan the gauges, look out the window, scan the gauges, look out the window, scan the gauges….

“Centurion Niner-Four-Four-Three-Mike. Do you copy?”

“Centurion Niner-Four-Four-Three-Mike. Do you copy?”

That’s interesting. It sounds like someone’s talking. Who is Centurion? And my name isn’t Mike. And Oh. My. God! Where was I? And why was I so sleepy?

“Niner-Four-Four-Three-Mike.”

“Niner-Four-Four-Three-Mike. We’ve called you a half dozen times. You need to switch to Regional Approach.”

My shaking fingers fumbled changing the frequency. I had fallen asleep and couldn’t remember a thing. How did this happen?

I called Approach while pulling the hairs on my left forearm to stimulate the lizard part of my brain—and anything else that could feel sharp pain. I could scarcely believe that after safely logging more than 500 hours, I had nodded off. Was it the heat? Dehydration? My noise-cancelling headset? The drone of the engine? The boring ride? Did any of that even matter?

If the autopilot had not been turned on, if it had failed, if ATC had been trying to divert me from conflicting traffic, if a gas tank had run dry, if I had never woken up…. I shuddered. My son and I would have been flying among the clouds for eternity.

Several lessons learned that day have informed my flying for the past 600 hours and dozen years. Don’t get in the airplane if I’m feeling tired or haven’t slept well. Don’t let the autopilot do all the work. Stay busy while the airplane’s flying. Stay hydrated. Two pilots are always better than one. And land if I start feeling sleepy.

I thought about that, and a lot more, that hot afternoon after landing in Dallas. Lifting my sleeping son from the back of the airplane after gently pushing aside strands of light auburn hair clinging to his damp forehead, I was reminded of the words of another pilot—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—who wrote, “As the little prince dropped off to sleep, I took him in my arms and set out walking once more. I felt deeply moved and stirred. It seemed to me that I was carrying a very fragile treasure. It seemed to me, even, that there was nothing more fragile on all Earth.”

Kevin Knight is an instrument-rated pilot in Dallas who owns and flies a 1967 Mooney M20F.