NTSB Looks at Pilot Fatigue; Not Soon Enough

By Robert Mark on November 9th, 2007

The National Transportation Safety Board met Thursday to talk about an industry epidemic … pilot fatigue. It’s about time. The Air Line Pilots Association folks were nice enough to let me write an article about fatigue in their magazine … 18 years ago … so this is not a new problem.

Too often though, we pilots let our desire to never say “enough” cloud our good judgment.

The media has recently grabbed on to a few incidents of pilots falling asleep with passengers aboard, but there are many other examples of how tough flying can be on your body that you should know about if you’re new to the industry.

Stand Ups

Here’s a scary, fatigue-inducing schedule I used to fly at one airline. Keep in mind as you read, these schedules are still in use at some companies today, at least in the U.S. Maybe a few of you outside North America can tell us what you’ve seen.

Called continuous-duty overnights, or stand up overnights – you never got much sleep – the carrier scheduled you to arrive at work late in the evening around 9 PM. You’d clock out of work about 8 am the next morning. For an airline job, 11 hours of duty doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But these schedules were killers.

The airlines designed them for a very specific purpose however, most importantly to protect the first bank of aircraft in the morning. If the first gaggle of airplanes were late coming in from the outstations -because a pilot or flight attendant was late for work or there was a mechanical – the rest of the day’s flight schedule was a mess.

The Nitty Gritty

Show at 9 PM, depart to a city about 10PM and maybe fly a hour or so to the destination. Put the airplane to bed and maybe you were out of the airport by midnight on your way to a nice warm hotel bed.

Now the ugly part. The crew that brought the airplane in was also the crew to make the first flight the next morning, which meant a 5 AM show, which translated into getting up by 4 AM or so depending on the station.

So assuming you made it to the hotel by maybe 12:45 the night before and if you were lucky enough to fall asleep half an hour later, you might have gotten three hours of sleep before you hit the airport for the return flight.

Try anything in your life right now – driving a car, working on the computer, having a conversation over the breakfast table – on three hours of sleep and see how you function.

Sure everyone went home the next morning to sleep for a few hours after work, but it was never a good solid rest. It was the middle of the day and our body clocks were completely twisted out of shape.

Imagine the cumulative sleep deprivation after we’d flown four of these in a row with each night’s sleep deficit adding to the last. By the third night, we were all zombies. Add in the need to fly a couple of instrument approaches to minimums and these schedules were accidents looking for a place to happen.

The folks in back paid good money for their tickets and never had any idea that the pilots up front were exhausted.

And if you called in tired, the company would be on your butt pretty quick.

So ask about continuous duty overnights during your interview. If the company you’re trying to get on with still uses them, I’d run … quick.

And air traffic controllers run through a similar kind of schedule flip flop with similar fatigue results. The controller who turned his back on the Comair flight in Lexington was operating on about two or three hours of sleep in fact. Most controllers seem to like the schedules though.

Correction box: And since I have you all thinking about the Feds here, I want to correct something I wrote about a few weeks ago. I thought the data the NASA was holding on to – and has yet to release actually – was part of the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

I was wrong. The NASA data was gathered separately from that system.

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4 Responses to “NTSB Looks at Pilot Fatigue; Not Soon Enough”

  1. Doug Says:

    i recently read a magazine article about many pilots having a second job/profession on the side. i would be interested in knowing how common that really is and how much time they spend on it. if a second job is not uncommon, i would think that that would also add to mental stress and difficulty in getting enough rest.

  2. Rob Mark Says:

    I think you’d find that having a second job is almost a necessity for some people flying for the regional carriers.

    Many of the pay levels are so poor that a family pilot can qualify for food stamps.

    I guess the better question for those working a second job would be to prove how the extra work is NOT tiring them out.

    But the one thing I told people when I was flying at the regional level was that I was ALWAYS tired.

    I can’t imagine how anyone could make a second job work, now that I think about it.

    I was also a heck of a lot younger than I am now too.

    My hope is that we’ll hear from some other pilots or controllers who have found fatigue to be an issue as well as how they cope.

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