Sleeping on the flight deck

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The media is having ball writing about air traffic controllers caught sleeping at the switch. Then our politicians got into the mix and proposed solutions as if they and the media pundits had a clue as to the real problem. Sure there have been about six cases recently where some poor tower controller was having a nap, an aircraft arrived to land and nobody was awake to give permission.

Not a problem, safety- wise, as the pilot, who by definition is in command anyway, made the decision to land and everything worked out OK. For pilots, that course of action is what takes place many times a day, or night, at our own Ben Nelson Regional Airport (don't you just love the name?) which is a "Non-Controlled Airport" (governmentalese for no control tower). No problem, just look out the window, avoid running into other aircraft, fly the pattern and land.

My practice and the course that I teach my flight students is that all instructions from air traffic control are advisory only. The pilot is the one who has to make the decision whether a course of action is safe or not. Pilots understand that if they do take action contrary to the direction of an air traffic controller an intimidating amount of paperwork is sure to follow. My philosophy remains that it is much more comfortable to do the paperwork in the comfort of the operations office than to lay bleeding in a wrecked aircraft somewhere.

For example, I have been directed around an airport in solid clouds and given an altitude to fly on abnormally wide radar down leg that was too low. Had we complied with the instruction we would possibly have collided with the hilly terrain below. The controller later apologized, but that would have done little good had we flown into the ground. The time-worn adage in aviation teaches that "If the pilot makes a mistake the pilot dies but if the controller makes a mistake the pilot dies!"

In my own experience I've found that controllers rarely make mistakes and the few times that it has happened a simple query cleared things up nicely, no real problem.

In my opinion the current problem with control operators sleeping isn't really a people problem, it is one of management. The human body, you, me and everybody else, is calibrated to function in 24-hour day cycles. Those tower guys work eight hour shifts and normally get a sixteen hour break before going back to work. Their union has pushed management to rotate shifts so that the controllers can also get a three- day weekend. They do that by cutting the time off to only eight hours before reporting for duty again. That makes it impossible to get adequate rest and then they are right back on duty when their body is craving sleep in the worst way as their body had been disrupted from our normal 24-hour body cycle. To make it worse, many times the early morning hours are almost devoid of air traffic and some control towers are only manned with one person during that time. It is small wonder that several operators have recently been caught napping. Actually they have probably been doing it for years and the media just haven't noticed.

A possible solution would be to pay late night / early morning shifts at a higher rate than the 8-to-5 daytime shift, attracting more workers willing to keep the late hours. Then, too, the supervisors, who of course work the "normal" 8 to 5, could come around in the early morning hours to help out the guys pulling the tough duty. The union would not stand for either of those two solutions because they see all workers as equal regardless of sloth or incompetence. Pay differential -- no way!

Not long ago the Department of Transportation, which also has responsibility for FAA operations, deemed that truckers, too, must comply with a drive/rest cycle that is different from the natural 24 hour body cycle. Equally another dumb move in my opinion.

If I were a trucker headed east on the interstate with the sun rising into my eyes I think that I would have to pull into the next truck stop to stretch and eat a little breakfast to just break the monotony. At least truck drivers have a chance to pull over and catch a short nap, options not available to a single pilot or a control tower operator.

Years ago when I was flying refueling missions over the Pacific, we too found it really tough to stay awake during the wee morning hours. We would report for briefing at midnight. Two hours later we would depart Okinawa and head west. We met our bomb-laden receivers north of the Philippines to offload in the neighborhood of 100,000 pounds of fuel, topping off their tanks, on the way to Vietnam.

Then we tankers, generally six of us in formation, reversed course and climbed to above 40,000 feet to return to Okinawa. By then the sun had popped above the horizon just right in our eyes. It was normally absolutely calm and smooth flying up there in loose formation, relaxed with the tension of in-flight refueling behind us. In our big jets the cockpit was warm, comfortable, quiet and mesmerizing with the autopilot capably handling the flying chores.

I made a pact with my copilot that I'd kick back and take a nap if he would monitor things and then we'd switch. The rest of the crew dozed, too, as they had even less to do. That was, until the time that I awakened from a short nap, glanced over at Larry and found him with his eyes shut too. The first time I pushed the autopilot disconnect button and the loud click brought Larry back to life. The second time I caught him, a few missions later, I quietly disconnected the auto pilot toggles then pushed the nose over to make him weightless in zero G's.

Now when you were a kid, did you ever drop a cat and watch it twist around to invariably land on his feet? Well humans do the same thing when they awaken and find themselves falling weightless! Somehow that made Larry extremely angry. It also taught me that I dare not sleep and let him keep us in position!

Not long after we returned to the States Larry departed the Air Force and got hired by United Airlines. Over the years I've wonder if he managed to stay awake flying passengers long enough to retire from United. You don't suppose he is now working as a tower control operator?

View 1 comment
Note: The nature of the Internet makes it impractical for our staff to review every comment. Please note that those who post comments on this website may do so using a screen name, which may or may not reflect a website user's actual name. Readers should be careful not to assign comments to real people who may have names similar to screen names. Refrain from obscenity in your comments, and to keep discussions civil, don't say anything in a way your grandmother would be ashamed to read.
  • Dicky when are you going to get over the name on the airport?

    Showing your jealousy of Ben Nelson is not flattering.

    I for one, love the name....poke, poke.

    Also love the statue along Norris Ave....poke,poke.

    -- Posted by goarmy67 on Mon, May 2, 2011, at 5:02 PM
Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: