Image: Flight recorders
Kevin Wolf  /  AP
The flight recorders from Northwest flight 188, that overflew the Minneapolis-St Paul International/World-Chamberlain Airport, are displayed at the NTSB headquarters in Washington last week.
updated 10/26/2009 3:42:15 PM ET 2009-10-26T19:42:15

Charles Lindbergh famously fell asleep while crossing the Atlantic on his historic 1927 solo flight, and despite strict federal rules against it, experienced airline pilots say it's not uncommon to sneak a nap inside the cockpit.

The Northwest pilots who blew 150 miles (240 kilometers) past Minneapolis this past week insist a clandestine snooze isn't to blame for their goof at 37,000 feet (11,300 meters). "Nobody fell asleep in the cockpit," first officer Richard I. Cole told The Associated Press.

Aviation safety experts and fellow pilots don't buy it, arguing the most likely explanation for missing more than an hour of radio, cell phone and data messages is a drowsy flight crew. The prospect alone could renew focus on pilot fatigue and research that suggests controlled catnaps might actually make flying safer.

"If you really need a nap, you're far better off taking a nap than ignoring your body and being tired during takeoff and landing," said Kit Darby, a pilot who said he took the occasional mid-flight nap during his 30-year career at several major airlines.

"It was not uncommon to do that. If you needed to take a nap, you took a nap," Darby said. "As a captain, I would encourage it."

International carriers including Air France, British Airways and Qantas allow pilots to nap, but sleeping while flying is prohibited at U.S. airlines by the Federal Aviation Administration. Just last month, the Air Transport Association again pressed the FAA to allow controlled cockpit napping, citing NASA research that found a mid-flight snooze significantly reduces the risks of overall pilot fatigue.

"Other regulatory agencies have endorsed it for many years with no adverse consequences," the group, which represents the major U.S. airlines, along with associations for regional and cargo airlines, wrote to Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's associate administrator for safety.

The NASA study begun in 1989 allowed one group of pilots flying across the Pacific to take a 25-minute nap while their co-pilots flew the planes, while a control group was required to remain awake for the entire flight. Those without the naps nodded off five times as much — including while on the approach to the airport — as those who got some sleep.

The research didn't sway the FAA, but it didn't go unnoticed among those pilots who break the agency's rules by catching some sleep while in the cockpit, said Curt Graeber, the former chief engineer for human factors in Boeing Co.'s commercial airplane division.

"We used to call it the NASA nap, or snooze cruise," he said.

FAA rules currently allow airline pilots to fly eight hours in a 16-hour "duty day," which includes briefings and other preparation time. Commercial airline pilots often make long, tiring commutes to reach their departure point; the pilots of the San Diego-Minneapolis flight live in Oregon and Washington state. Once on duty, pilots can sit for long hours behind a locked door minding a plane that is largely automated once they're airborne. Video: NWA pilots: Distracted by mundane tasks

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American Airlines pilot Sam Mayer said problems with fatigue are greatest among pilots who make several short trips a day, sometimes for three or four days in a row. Flight 188 captain Timothy B. Cheney and first officer Cole had just started their work week and were coming off a 19-hour layover, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Saturday, citing an internal Northwest document it said was described to the newspaper.

Under their contract, American Airlines pilots who refuse to fly because they're tired are protected from retaliation. Skipping a flight means not getting paid for those hours, and Mayer said the Minneapolis incident "is more anecdotal evidence that pilots are fatigued out there."

On long international flights, a third pilot joins the flight crew so that one pilot can sleep while two remain at the controls. But Graeber said working a long-haul flight can be less tiring than flying a small commuter jet at low altitude on multiple takeoffs and landings on one shift.

"There's a lot more stress than flying a 747 with a bunk in the back," he said.

The NTSB plans to investigate whether fatigue was a factor and will interview the pilots this week. Northwest, acquired last year by Delta Air Lines Inc., has suspended Cheney and Cole and is also investigating.

An airport police report said the men were "cooperative, apologetic and appreciative" and volunteered to take tests that were zero for alcohol use. They told police they missed the airport because they had become distracted by a heated discussion, something retired Delta pilot Joe Mazzone said could have led them to miss a critical radio handoff between air traffic controllers.

Slideshow: Awful airlines

"You're talking about 15 minutes if they were at 500 knots (920 kph)," Mazzone said. "It's not long at all."

But Mazzone, who flew jet airliners for 23 years, said it's just as possible they got caught napping.

"It's kind of like being in an operating room. You know the physicians and the nurses ... are listening to music, telling jokes, they're doing what keeps them alert," he said. "Things are happening that if the public knew about it, they wouldn't understand it, but it's done. They've got the same thing in the cockpit."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Should pilots be allowed to nap?

  1. Closed captioning of: Should pilots be allowed to nap?

    >> sense. thank you.

    >>> today, regardless of what really did happen in that cockpit, the incident is putting a spotlight on the debate over pilot fatigue because as you may remember, the early question was, were those pilots cat napping . the big question, could letting pilots take mid-flight cat naps actually make flying safer? joining me now is tom casey , retired american airlines pilot and now a flight instructor and joining me from mount pleasant , south carolina , mary skivo, former inspector general for the u.s. department and current aviation attorney. let's steer clear of what we know in this case right now because we don't know everything. but let's assume pilot fatigue played a role, tom, and you're flying at 36,000 feet and it sort of gets boring and things happen, should you, as the captain of a plane, be able to say to your co-pilot, listen, go snooze for a half hour and i'll come and get you?

    >> well of course. i mean what are we talking about? pilots are paid for their judgment. they have a fourth stripe because they know how to make decisions especially with respect to safety. the federal air regulation dictates the pilot has absolute authority , absolute, and absolute responsibility for things that happen.

    >> but absolute, have common sense too?

    >> it's all common sense . you can't legislate against your fears. as i said earlier, you can't micro manage human factors . you can set guidelines. a captain's responsibility is to the safe passage of the flight, the paernlgs. i've made many decisions like that. i've ordered cat naps sometimes. if you're flying say south america and you leave at 8:30 at night and you're going -- you're going to fly through the mountains through the dark and through the fog, on a challenging approach, i'm serving my crewmembers and i'm observing myself and i'll make decisions based on what i consider to be the right course for a safe operation.

    >> mary , as a frequent flyer , that makes sense to me on some level.

    >> well, it does on some level. right now in aviation both the national transportation safety board and the federal aviation administration are looking at these issues and solving it with cat naps or short periods of sleep when you're on duty. it's like a band-aid on a hedge raj. the national transportation safety board has been in existence in over 40 years and during those 40 years they have tried repeatedly to address the problem of pilot fatigue and during that time the way we fly has changed. we've gone from the beginning of the jet age to now flying halfway around the globe nonstop and pilots flying eight legs a day. meanwhile cockpit crews have been reduced from three to two and both the faa and ntsb are looking for new duty times and i think they should be allowed to do so without solving it with cat naps.

    >> is the issue how many crewmembers you have on plane or is it the length of the flight? i mean, at some point i think -- i mean, passengers don't want to hear that --

    >> no.

    >> people in the cockpit are dozing off.

    >> no.

    >> on the other hand --

    >> mary makes a good point. throughout accident investigation history you're always evolving new protocols and new procedures to deal with the realities of flight, not with what --

    >> what-ifs.

    >> so you take problems, if cat naps were legislated, and united overflies by 150 miles, there's an issue with respect to veg lens here and that has to do with maybe other factors than purely fatigue.

    >> to that point we hear over and over again from pilots like tom who have said look, we are so cut back, we are stretched, everybody is getting their last ten cents out of us and the pilot fatigue issue is real and until there is more money and the feds and frankly the company support the pilots , these things are going to happen.

    >> well --

    >> but it has happened so many times frequently we have to give the pilots the backstop they need. we have put so much on the pilots and when something happens, who's the first to get blamed, the pilots . the pilots need the ability including the required mandated rest to do the job without relying on a cat nap . granted if that's what it takes, i'm sure like the captain says he will order it. that's not a solution.

    >> okay. and let's also take a look at the corporate cultures of these airlines. we psalm the tragedy in buffalo. all right. it was clear that these pilots were under all kinds of pressures from corporate mandates that are not in the interest of safety, they were interested in the bottom line. we're going to lose the next generation of pilots and lose our safety parameters no matter what the regulations say.

    >> and on that note, tom casey thank you.

    >> thank you.

    >> we covered a lot today. mary , thank you so much.

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