Attention Flyers: Your Pilots May Be Asleep

A controversial hunk of data from NASA released recently had the following terrifying anecdote: On a red-eye flight from Baltimore to Denver not one but both pilots fell asleep. As in not awake.

Eventually, some frantic calls from the Denver airport (warning the flight that they were approaching at twice the allowed speed) woke the pilots.

We don’t know who the pilots were or what airline they were flying with because they come through NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, which allows crew members to report incidents anonymously.

The report does mention that the airplane was an Airbus A319, which is flown by Frontier Airlines and United Airlines. From the Associated Press:

United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy told the Rocky Mountain News, which first reported the incident, that United did not fly a “red-eye” between the two cities at the time and it had no reports of that incident.

Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas told the newspaper the airline had a “red-eye” flight at the time but could not find a report of the incident.

Federal Aviation Administration officials did not return a message.

The narrative in the report had this statement: “Last 45 mins of flt [flight] I fell asleep and so did the FO [first officer].”

The captain noted the plane was about 60 miles away from Denver International Airport and was approaching a point where it was to begin its descent when he woke up.

The plane was at 35,000 feet, much higher than required, and was going 608 mph, instead of the required 287 mph, for that point in the flight.

“I woke up, why I don’t know, and heard frantic calls from ATC [air traffic control] … I answered ATC and abided by all instructions to get down. Woke FO [first officer] up,” according to the report.

He spiraled the jet to a lower altitude as ordered and landed “with no further incidents.”

The pilots are thought to have fallen asleep because they were switched to a schedule that included three nights in a row of overnight flying. Pilot fatigue, we’re being told, is a much more serious and widespread issue than the public realizes.

Who flew? Both pilots slept on Baltimore to Denver red-eye [Seattle Times]
(Photo:as737700)

Comments

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  1. theblackdog says:

    Maybe I should consider not taking non-stops when I fly out west.

  2. jamesdenver says:

    I don’t believe it. The cross country portions of piloting are dull, but arrive a major class B airport pilots prepare arrival procedures from miles out. Similar to driving and approaching a major city. Your senses perk up, and you just don’t fall asleep.

    When I see the actual details and hear admissions by the pilot’s I’ll believe it, but until then it’s just a scary news story than makes attention with headlines like “Hurtling towards DIA at twice the normal speed.” (in the Rocky Mountain News)

    That line is simply BS. Even if the pilot’s WERE asleep and unable to communicate the plane most likely the airliner was on auto pilot, and controllers could easily route other planes around it. There’s no way pilots would prep an approach, (hence scary headlines of “PLANE DIVE BOMBING INTO AIRPORT) and THEN fall asleep. MAYBE on the inflight portion, but I have a hard time believing it could be on approach. Speaking as a private pilot myself.

    james [www.futuregringo.com]

  3. Shappie says:

    @theblackdog:

    Well, that flight almost became a non-stop, all the way past and over the airport.

    If they didn’t wake up and went over the airport, would everyone on the plane get more Frequent Flyer miles for the extra mileage they flew? ;)

  4. CurbRunner says:

    Just great, another reassuring but necessary story to instill confidence in the flying public.
    There have been plenty of studies resulting in clear evidence about the negative effects of the kind of rotating shift work that these pilots are forced to endure.
    The FAA and the airlines need to accommodate the findings of those studies and mandate readjustment of pilots’ flight hours to protect the safety of everybody involved.

  5. Shappie says:

    If the pilots stayed sleeping and flew over the airport, would everyone on the plane get more Frequent flyers miles for the extra mileage? ;)

  6. fileunder says:

    it’s better when the pilots are drunk.

  7. CurbRunner says:

    @jamesdenver: said

    “When I see the actual details and hear admissions by the pilot’s I’ll believe it, but until then it’s just a scary news story than makes attention with headlines like “Hurtling towards DIA at twice the normal speed.”

    The problem with the report is that we’re not going to get the names of any of the pilots or others that actually made the statements about these incidents because they have all been redacted from the report to respect privacy protection of the folks involved.
    Most likely the airlines would retaliate against any pilots disclosing such information.

  8. Mr. Cynical says:

    Wow, another reassuring reason to fly the friendly skies.

    (or, how I’m going to die on an airplane).

  9. MrEvil says:

    The problem is switching these guys from Overnights to day shifts in the same week. I worked one week of overnights at a job and it took me an entire week to get back to a normal sleeping pattern. Switching to Overnights wasn’t a big deal, but getting back to day shifts was very unpleasant.

  10. ChChChacos says:

    I am currently a flight student at Purdue University. Let it be known that it’s typical for pilots to sleep on flights, many passengers don’t realize this. Power naps are usually always taken on long flights over seas. Although in most cases this is practiced safely. In most flights your on the pilot isn’t even flying, and the plane usually lands itself. You would be surprised to know that sometimes only 15-20 minutes of the flight is actually flown by the pilots, all the rest by computers. Recently a Continental pilot came to speak in one of my classes. She has regular flights from Newark to Paris. She even told us that she sleeps on these flights. It’s pretty typical. I’d rather have a pilot with a quick power nap than one who is in dire need of sleep during an emergency.

  11. jamesdenver says:

    Let me clarify something also: I DO believe it could happen or happened, but not the way the media sold it, especially here in Denver. This ONE sentence from the above article explains it all:

    quote: The captain noted the plane was about 60 miles away from Denver International Airport and was approaching a point where it was to begin its descent when he woke up.

    This means that the airliner was most likely at cruising altitude, (the most boring/dull part of flight.) If they were sleeping then the plane would simply overflyed Denver on auto. Definitely scary and unsafe. But not as perilous as your bus driver falling asleep.

    It DOESN’T mean the airline was “hurtling towards the city” uncontrolled requiring that Superman movie move to save it. The “twice the normal speed” simply means they were changing from cruise to approach speeds.

  12. Beerad says:

    I don’t think anyone has a problem with one pilot catching a few z’s on a long uneventful flight. The issue here seems to be that BOTH pilots fell asleep, which I have to think is a big no-no. I mean, it was enough of a problem that one of the pilots anonymously reported it, and he should know, eh?

  13. vex says:

    All those gizmos in the cockpit and not a single alarm clock.

  14. drrictus says:

    I’m not surprised they would sleep. I am surprised that they wouldn’t sleep in shifts, or that (presuming they were using shifts) the on-duty officer couldn’t find something to stimulate him. Review your flight plan a fifth time, cross-check instruments just for kicks, play with the perf computer to see if you can save a pinch of fuel, or (lastly) use the ol’ ADF to find a local FM station.

  15. bugsbenny36 says:

    On long-haul flights there are “relief pilots” who are there to relieve the crew to sleep. The problem is that they don’t practice this cross-country which could be a 6-7(+) hour flight, at night, boring as hell… Maybe they can let all us flight simulator “experts” to take over:)

  16. LetMeGetTheManager says:

    Didn’t this plot happen in the movie “Airplane!”?

  17. Buran says:

    @Beerad: It should not happen, but as long as the pilots are awakened in time or someone can take control in time, there’s no real danger. The aircraft will fly on autopilot as programmed and when it reaches its destination it will circle in a holding pattern. This happened over Greece in 2005 when everyone on board became incapacitated and the aircraft circled until it ran out of fuel. Normally, if it’s just a case of falling asleep, someone can shake them awake if they don’t respond within a certain amount of time.

    So, yeah, this shouldn’t happen but normally shouldn’t cause a disaster.

  18. bearymore says:

    Reminds me of the old canard — Airliners are so automated nowadays that the airlines are now staffing them with a single pilot and a german shepherd. The pilot is there to monitor the instruments. The german shepherd is there to make sure the pilot doesn’t touch anything.

  19. Why oh why am I not surprised.

  20. timmus says:

    @Buran wrote: “as long as the pilots are awakened in time or someone can take control in time, there’s no real danger”

    I disagree strongly. The plane can stray because of an improperly stored route, such as what happened with KAL007. It could enter a dangerous thunderstorm. It could be on a collision course with another plane and TCAS or ATC might not be working. The pilot still has ultimate responsibility for the safety of the flight, and sleeping is abdicating that responsibility.

  21. LetMeGetTheManager says:

    @timmus: The plane can stray because of an improperly stored route, such as what happened with KAL007. It could enter a dangerous thunderstorm. It could be on a collision course with another plane and TCAS or ATC might not be working. The pilot still has ultimate responsibility for the safety of the flight, and sleeping is abdicating that responsibility.

    Agreed. Also, wind sheer could lie directly in the path of the autopilot as well.

  22. Megan Trigg says:

    If it really was either Frontier or United only, then it was United, unless things have really changed. I used to be in & out of BWI airport every month or so, and I’ve never in my life seen a Frontier airplane there. I even just checked both the airport and Frontier’s websites, and there’s no mention of them flying into Baltimore at all (DCA, yes, but that’s in DC, not Baltimore).

  23. faust1200 says:

    I was a first officer for a regional airline for about a year and maybe twice I noticed my Captain start to nod off. So when that happened I would hit the engine fire bell test button – woke ‘em right up!

  24. faust1200 says:

    If a pilot reports an incident through NASA before they get in trouble for it, the pilot is supposed to get immunity from any trouble they would normally get into. That’s why they get so many interesting tidbits.

  25. extracrispy says:

    I found this statement to be the most alarming part of the story: He spiraled the jet to a lower altitude as ordered.

    Spiraled?! WTF?

  26. jamesdenver says:

    @LetMeGetTheManager:

    Wrong, Windshear doesn’t occur at cruise.

    @extracrispy:

    It’s a lie, it didn’t happen. They probably did a steeper than usual descent, but this wasn’t an approach to Baghdad Int’l.

  27. faust1200 says:

    @extracrispy: That just means he descended by turning in circles since he was already too close to descend normally. It’s nothing aerobatic.

  28. MalcoveMagnesia says:

    United Airlines pilots usually keep Channel 9 turned on (this allows the passengers in back to listen in and pay attention to live Air Traffic Control chatter).

    Had this had been a UAL plane, you better believe that eagle-eared passengers would’ve alerted the flight attendants.

    Who would then be banging on the door.

  29. Archteryx says:

    @extracrispy: He probably more or less flew a normal “racetrack” holding pattern, during which he was descending. Turn-and-descend is a very common manuver; pilots do it all the time flying traffic patterns around an airport.

  30. Eric Lai says:

    @MalcoveMagnesia: Wow, this would totally beat XM and Direct TV on Jetblue flights! I never realized plugging in my headset into my armrest would yield anything interesting.

  31. pestie says:

    @faust1200: That’s not always true. Filing an ASRS report only gets you immunity under certain circumstances. See here for details.

  32. JohnMc says:

    Pilots dozing on planes actually is quite common. Though both seats asleep is not allowed. On long international flights many airlines that at least one of the pilots on the flight deck have had a rest of 4 hours or more during the flight.

    Also consider that the USAF B2 bomber, which carries nukes if need be, Has a ‘sleep center’ built in to permit the crew to sleep on a 40 round trip mission. And Ben was worried about some civilian crew sleeping!

  33. stormyk says:

    A few observations that may help some of the non-pilots out there: 1. The speed referred to in the aritcle is high because the aircraft had not left it’s cruising altitude (35000 feet)Because the air is thinner at higher altitude, there is less resistance and aircraft are able to fly higher; in fact, an indicated airspeed of 300 knots is actuallymuch faster at 35000 feet than at 10000 feet. Once wakened, the flight was only 60 miles from touchdown, however it needs to fly 80-90 miles to descend normally, hence the dreaded “spiral”- they circled to loose altitude. While it is not normal for anyone on the flight deck to be asleep, it is not unheard of. Pilots are usually careful to sleep one at a time, no matter how tired. These guys blew it big time.

  34. a says:

    Can a pilot help me with this? The timezones are making my brain all squiggly.

    Okay, red eye “Informal. a commercial airline flight between two distant points that departs late at night and arrives early in the morning.”

    Baltimore to Denver is going east to west. Meaning the LATEST it could leave is 6 PMish, to get to Denver at 8 PMish (local to Denver). That’s 4 hours in the air, departing evening, arriving evening, subtract 2 hours for eastern to mountain timezone. Right?

    I can understand that if schedules are being flipped, the pilots might be sleepy, but red eyes are only from west to east. That’s the only way you can get to your destination (within the continent) by the next day.

    How are all these news sources getting this piece of info wrong? Or am I wrong?

  35. SexCpotatoes says:

    maybe they flew the wrong way ’round the world…

  36. CapitalC says:

    You’ve still got a better chance of being killed by a donkey.

  37. jamesdenver says:

    Lauren you’re right. People call any late evening flight a “red eye” I believe the same. It’s an overnight flight from west coast to Chicago or east coast where you tuck in, attempt to sleep, and arrive early AM.

    They don’t have to be west coast – jetBlue’s Denver -NY flight leaves at 12am, arriving in the morning, but they’re all west to east.

  38. aaronw1 says:

    So, as a pilot I feel compelled to point out that all this hooplah about ASRS recently is the doing of someone in the media who found out about it and is combing it trying to get ‘dirt’. The purpose of ASRS is for people to report problems in the ‘system’. ASRS then takes all these system reports to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it. It’s vital that they be anonymous so that the people reporting the condition can do so safely without fear of reprisal or license action (here’s the important part) from THE FAA. (not their own employer) For example, if a pilot was told to go via a certain taxi route, but went another way because he was confused (maybe like lexington), is the real problem the pilot or the runway/taxiway configuration? If ASRS gets enough reports about the configuration, then it can be fixed, instead of individually disciplining people. In this particular example, if crew fatigue on late-night problems is a continuing problem, then maybe some kind of ‘whistle’ needs to be hooked up on the radio… any one of a number of things, but unless ASRS finds out, nobody will ever know it’s a problem….

  39. AlphaTeam says:

    I have a family member who’s a captain and he says that the airlines are short on pilots sometimes, so he ends up getting overbooked for possibly 4 flights in a row. Terrible for pilot’s health and public safety.