Sleepless in the Cockpit

April 21, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

05-463_028Fatigue is a big item these days, especially after the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo. It was revealed that both crew members had commuted to Newark – the captain slept overnight in the pilot lounge, something that Colgan allegedly prohibited and the first officer had flown in on a red eye cargo flight from her home on the west coast. It is probable that neither were anywhere close to 100% when they began the disastrous night approach into Buffalo that resulted in some 50 fatalities.

I attended an FAA, industry workshop at MITRE this week where the topic of fatigue came up once again. We’re all familiar with the concept of  “powering through” as NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman put it in her opening remarks: The college student’s all-nighter in prep for exams, doctors and truck drivers known for their commitment to deliver the goods. There are other life-critical professions that have taken the traditional view that fatigue is a form of personal weakness.  It’s not – it’s a core part of human physiology.

In GA, with the exception of corporate and Part 135 pilots, we get to set our own schedule.  The long day is a staple of business pilots everywhere: Up at 0600, or before, airborne by 0730, arriving at destination by 1030 or 1100. Then it’s down to business for 6 hours or so, maybe a dinner with the client and heading for home about 2000 for a 2300 arrival.

The Air National Guard found that 20-30% of its mishaps occur when fatigue is at least a  factor. Eighty-five percent of  surveyed GA corporate operators noted it as a ” moderate to serious concern.”  In GA, ASF was able to find about 7 accidents over the last 20 years where NTSB cited fatigue as a probable cause. Another hundred or so listed it as a factor.  In the grand scheme of things is that a big deal?  Consider that there were another 400 plus where the cause was undetermined. I am confident that fatigue, hypoxia, or both, played a role in a significant number.

I’ll do a more complete report on this later in the year. In the meantime, here are two references for your consideration.

ASF Safety Brief: Fighting Fatigue

Safety Pilot Article: Tired

We all have sleep time stories – what’ s yours? Also, how do you feel about professional pilot commuting?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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