In 2008, two Mesa Airlines pilots flew 25 nautical miles past their destination in Hilo, Hawaii, while the control tower tried to get their attention.
It turned out they were asleep.
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The captain of the Feb.13, 2008, Mesa Airlines Go! flight told the National Transportation Safety Board that while this particular nap wasn’t intentional, he often napped in the cockpit for 20 minutes at a time.
The idea of pilots napping at 30,000 feet may sound horrifying, but pilots across the world are taking naps in the sky every day. And it might actually make air travel safer.
Research shows that a fatigued pilot is more likely to make errors at critical moments. In fact, fatigue has been cited as a factor in more than 320 airline accidents and nearly 750 deaths over the past 50 years, according to a News21 analysis of NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration data. Experts say those numbers would be much higher if fatigue could be measured like alcohol and drugs.
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Even a 10-minute nap can improve a pilot’s performance, said Scott Shappell, a Clemson University professor who as director of the Human Factors Institute helped write the flying policies that govern military pilots.
In the military, pilots flying alone have been allowed for decades to take naps, Shappell said. “I can tell you absolutely, but good luck trying to find proof of this, in the military we have single-seat pilots take naps," he said. They’re called ORPs – officer rest periods – and last from 10 to 20 minutes.
Such naps can be safe as long as mechanisms are in place to wake pilots up before they enter a deep sleep, Shappell said. He believes that commercial aviation pilots can be trained to nap safely as well.
A plane is really just a bus at 30,000 feet, he said. “I personally don’t have a problem in the world if one of (the pilots) is taking a nap.”
Foreign airlines, such as British Airways and Qantas in England and Australia, already allow one pilot to take a short nap while the plane is in flight, usually on long-haul or transoceanic flights.
Meryl Getline, a former captain at United Airlines who retired early in 2005 because of the long hours, said pilots should be allowed to conk out in the cockpit.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting a pilot close his eyes for 10 minutes. I think it does more harm if you don’t let them do it,” she said. “I didn’t do it just because I can’t sleep on an airplane.”
Warm and cozy
A number of pilots, including the Mesa Airlines pilot who nodded off over Hawaii, said the cockpit is a warm and cozy place to nap when the weather is fine and the sun is shining. Still, almost no one believes the American flying public is ready for napping pilots.
In 1994, NASA and the FAA tested cockpit napping and found that naps of up to 40 minutes are both safe and effective for pilots on trips of more than seven hours. But the FAA decided not to pursue the idea because of the public concerns it might raise, said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. Besides, she pointed out, just think about the litigation that would result the first time an accident occurred while a pilot was napping.
“It’s something that’s been discussed in the past,” she said. “But obviously we’ve never allowed it.”
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The NTSB has never taken an official position on napping, but it has repeatedly asked the FAA to consider fatigue-management plans such as those in England and Australia, and its safety specialists have brought up the idea of napping.
“The science certainly supports the concept of napping” as a way to combat pilot fatigue, said NTSB fatigue expert Jana Price.
Shappell, the Clemson professor, said that regardless of the regulations, some pilots will inevitably nod off at 30,000 feet. And, in fact, a 1989 NASA survey found that 80 percent of pilots at 26 regional airlines admitted to napping in the cockpit.
“We kind of look at pilot napping like going 65 in a 55 – everybody does it,” Shappell said. “Whether or not it’s allowed, it’s happening every day. If pilots tell you they’ve never napped in the cockpit, they’re lying.”