Pilot Falls Asleep During Flight — More Than Once

A Boeing 767-300 aircraft with winglets waits at the gate in Sydney for its flight to Auckland. Photograph by FlyerTalk member JamesBond_ppk. Click on the photograph for a trip report written by JamesBond_ppk.

A pilot for Air New Zealand reportedly fell asleep more than once while at the controls in the cockpit of a Boeing 777 aircraft during international long-haul flights.

The unidentified pilot supposedly attributes one incident to a lack of quality rest at a hotel due to interruptions such as room changes resulting from substandard climate control conditions, according to this investigative report by 3 News in New Zealand.

If that is really the case — assuming the pilot is not responsible or has no control — how should hotels ensure that pilots receive the best rest possible the night before a long-haul flight?

What reportedly aggravated fatigue for the pilot was a delay due to low visibility, which included taxiing the aircraft for approximately 40 minutes.

During a discussion by FlyerTalk members pertaining to this incident, a statistic was posted which apparently reported the percentage of times pilots involuntarily fell asleep in the cockpit while flying by pilots who were surveyed in the following countries:

  • United Kingdom — 43 percent
  • Denmark — 50 percent
  • Norway — 53 percent, and
  • Sweden — 54 percent

…and in the United Kingdom, a third of the pilots were said to have awakened to find their colleague sleeping as well.

Having been in the cockpit of a Boeing 777-200 flight simulator, I can attest that the aircraft not only can literally flight itself when set automatically, but it is also not easy to crash. In the sessions in which I was involved, it took two bouts of severe wake turbulence to force the aircraft into what is known as a flat spin, which can be impossible from which to recover — and even then, the likelihood of that happening is remote at best.

I am not a pilot. I only wrote that because I do not want to invoke sensationalism and fear that this is a rampant problem. I do not even think about my life being in danger whenever I board a commercial aircraft — whether it is for a short domestic flight or a long-haul international flight.

However, complacency cannot be permitted either. While commercial aviation has plenty of redundant procedures, policies, equipment and personnel to handle virtually any adverse situation should anything initially fail, pilots do need to be assured that they have a restful sleep the night before a flight, and attention needs to be focused on mitigating uncontrolled fatigue during flights in the future…

…because in aviation, the most important factor in a successful flight is an alert and experienced pilot.

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Comments (Showing 7 of 7)

  • Doc Savage at 8:16pm March 04, 2013

    Your writing is extremely unclear. What does your random reported statistic mean? Do you really mean to suggest that pilots fall asleep 40 or 50 percent of he time? That is what you wrote. What does “more than once” mean in the first paragraph?

    Take some time, do some research, and state things clearly, please.

  • Brian Cohen at 11:03pm March 04, 2013

    Thank you for taking me to task, Doc Savage. I can always use that kind of feedback to improve how I write, and I appreciate it.

    The statistic I quoted was directly from what was posted in the discussion on FlyerTalk to which I linked in the article and not “my” random statistic – but I did research this a bit more and here is one article I found:

    http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report_50pct-pilots-have-fallen-asleep-at-controls-of-aircraft-survey_1766454

    Apparently, half of airline pilots have admitted that they have accidentally fallen asleep at the controls of a jet plane, which is where the 50 percent comes from.

    As for “more than once”, the pilot in question reportedly fell asleep at the controls on more than one flight.

    Please let me know if further clarification is needed…

  • boxedlunch at 12:56am March 05, 2013

    One pilot taking controlled cockpit rest is not a problem. There is strong research to suggest that it enhances crew alertness when crew rest has been affected. Two pilots taking a nap at the same time…well. Hopefully they wake up before overflying their destination.

  • chinatraderjmr at 4:48am March 05, 2013

    Back in the late 90’s on a UA flight from MIA-EZE I was standing in the galley, talking to the purser shortly after take off. The Capt was standing their as well having his first cup of coffee (obviously 9/11 was not even a thought back then). When the Capt went back to the cockpit he reminded the purser (right in front of me) to check on them once an hour to make sure they were not sleeping. This one incident is probably much more indicative of a world wide problem

  • PHLisa at 8:29am March 05, 2013

    Duplicitous is probably not the word you want (unless you think these procedures are deceptive?); duplicative is most likely what you meant.

  • Brian Cohen at 9:05am March 05, 2013

    Thank you for your input, PHLisa, – but after thinking about it, I removed the word duplicitous without replacing it with the word duplicative because I felt that using duplicative superfluously could be perceived as a needlessly duplicitous way of being unnecessarily redundant when I already used the word redundant.

  • AlohaDaveKennedy at 4:47pm March 05, 2013

    Well at least if they are sleeping they aren’t texting or playing on their ipad.

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