Posted by: harrisonjones | April 18, 2011


Since I blogged on air traffic controllers yesterday, I suppose it’s only fair to discuss the other side of the equation. After all, wasn’t a pilot crew accused of snoozing past MSP last year. Let me make it clear that I am not qualified to criticize anyone. My own blunders and ineptitude removed me from that lofty perch long ago. However, fighting fatigue is a battle we all contend with sooner or later. Just to offer a little perspective, consider that when you snuggle down under the covers tonight after your milk and cookies, there will be thousands of air traffic controllers, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and other airline personnel just beginning their work day. Some will have had eight hours sleep and some will have had none. 

I read in the paper this morning that Randy Babbitt, the FAA Administrator, has decreed that controllers will now have nine hours between shifts instead of eight. Where do we find men of such vast intellect? Oh yeah, I just remembered, Randy was the president of ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) when I was rubbing my eyes and flying midnight rockets. The regulation was that we had to have eight hours free of duty between flights. See yesterday’s blog. Example; arrive Las Vegas at three p.m., report for duty at eleven p.m. for an all nighter to New York. Try to cycle that through your diurnal. You pray for a good strong copilot, lots of hot coffee and hope you don’t have to land to the east with the sun coming up. The standing order for the copilot was, “You better not let me wake up and find you sleeping.” 

International flying rules are more realistic. Flights scheduled for more than eight hours require an extra copilot. This allows each pilot to have a two to three hour nap during the flight. Flights of more than twelve hours require four pilots; two captains and two copilots. Most airlines provide a crew rest facility that features bunk beds and privacy curtains. More than likely the captain has shed his pilot costume for sweats and a tee shirt. If that sounds like fun, let me describe one of my seven day duty rotations. Short and sweet; Atlanta, Tokyo, New York, Tokyo, Atlanta. The first leg is fourteen to fifteen hours. Leave Atlanta at ten a.m. arrive Tokyo at noon. However, you crossed fourteen time zones and the International Date Line. Its noon tomorrow but your body is telling you it’s midnight. The sun never went down and it won’t for another eight hours. No problem, you have a twenty four hour layover. The next day you leave Tokyo in early afternoon. You fly all afternoon, all night and most of the next day. The sun is going west at a thousand miles an hour and you are going east at about six hundred. The sun goes down and comes back up like a yo yo. You are near the Arctic Circle and the world is not very big around anyway. Arrive New York in the afternoon yesterday. Your body has no idea what time it is or what day it is. Only five more days to go. The only way to survive is to take a nap and eat every four to five hours until you get home. 

My longest day ever on an airplane was twenty four hours. I left Frankfurt about midnight, accompanied by my good friend and fellow captain, Bob Foster along with two copilots. We flew a military charter to Kuwait City and parked in a remote area. The airport was complete chaos with priority military flights and we waited all day for fuel. At last a little fuel truck started running back and forth to the fuel farm to fill us up. We finally got clearance and hauled back to Frankfurt empty, arriving at midnight once again.  

I wish each of you a good night’s sleep tonight. Babbitt, if you’re reading this I don’t want to hear anything about crew duty rules on charter flights.

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