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Safety Culture. Sleeping pilots.

In a news item this morning it was stated that a number (approximately a ninth) of the pilot workforce had woken to find the other pilot asleep. First question is … over what period of time? I flew for 30 years in the airlines. What was the duration of the ‘sleep’ in question? Where did it occur? Was the flight endangered? What is the percentage of  total number of flights affected? One pilot doing one flight finding the other pilot asleep  can’t be compared with a pilot doing 10,000 flights and finding the other pilot asleep on one occasion.  Neither is satisfactory but the risk element is quite different.

Like all press reports the figures have to be put into perspective. Yes it is true that both pilots have been known to be sleeping at the same time but it is permissible for one pilot to  sleep anyway. The circumstances are very restrictive and part of the requirement is for the cabin crew to check in with the pilots every 15 minutes or so to make sure that the other pilot hasn’t fallen asleep. Bearing in mind that under most circumstances it take s5 minutes or so to ‘drop off’  in the worst case if the cabin crew look in to check the pilots both pilots would have been asleep for 10 minutes … this is considered an acceptable risk because hitherto noisey engines and high workloads on the flight deck have meant that sleeping was unlikely to be induced by the circumstances. Modern cockpits are quiet and the work levels fairly low so the quiet and dark of the cockpit could be the perfect setting for ‘dropping off’.

In my experience of long haul flying and intensive work schedules around Europe I have never experienced waking up to find the other pilot asleep. Nor have I ever had to be  woken by the cabin crew.

It is right for the Airline Pilots association to make a fuss about the flight time limitations or  governments and business would push and push for more productivity at the cost of safety.

Although you may feel uneasy about hearing this news, please understand that these numbers have to be taken in the light of, traffic  conditions, aircraft position, stage of flight and so on. Pilots just don’t fall asleep at crucial times … there’s too much to be doing to stay awake for.

To put the whole thing into  perspective compare this  recent report with the numbers of road traffic accidents through drivers falling asleep. Sure  it’s ‘different’ but the risk to your life is much greater. Trouble is we acept it on the roads and get alarmed on the rare  occasion it happens in the air.

At least there’s nothing to collide with up there because the autopilot has to be on.


Captain Keith


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