Posted by: harrisonjones | February 22, 2014

Pilot Fatigue

       It is reported that the NTSB is considering pilot fatigue as a factor in the UPS Airbus accident in Birmingham. A big clue is the fact that the crew discussed fatigue during the flight. Of course it’s easy to say that if the approach had been made to the normal runway with an ILS available, the accident wouldn’t have occurred. On the other hand, anyone who plans a flight based on normal circumstances is assuming a premise that will eventually conclude tragically. The law of averages does not apply to flight planning. Worst case scenario is more appropriate and Murphy’s Law is not a myth. It’s also easy to say, “Well the pilots knew they were going to fly all night so they should have planned for it.” That logic can’t be disputed, however when you get up at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, just go back to bed at noon and see how much sleep you get before 8 tomorrow night. Much easier said than done. Forcing yourself to sleep is a losing battle. The harder you try the more your brain speeds up.

            Night flying has been a problem since before the invention of landing lights. All nighters, midnight rockets, graveyard flights (Uh…let’s not go there although you may have noticed that there are graveyards next to a large percentage of airports), have always been a pain in the posterior. The attempt to solve the problem with Federal Aviation Regulations is largely ridiculous and evidenced by the fact that cargo carriers are governed by different rules than passenger carriers. If having no passengers on board means the pilot needs less rest then shouldn’t there be a sliding scale for passenger flights. I mean obviously the pilot with 400 passengers on board needs more rest than the pilot with only 50 souls on his airplane. Furthermore, why should a company operating airplanes in the 100 million dollar price range rely on the FAA to tell them how much rest their employee needs. The feds only require the company to meet the minimum standards, but they can implement more restrictive rest rules at their discretion. When an airplane comes down on your house or a shopping center or a school, the result on the ground is the same no matter what’s onboard. So is the purpose of the rule to protect passengers or cargo or people on the ground? If the rule varies based on what’s on board, should race, gender, or personal income be a factor?

            I maintain my position that humans are still the strangest creatures that God has created and although we have progressed, we are still slowly evolving.


  1. As one trying to sleep on those off hours, you are so right. Impossible. And while we try to plan, an international pilot on reserve will always be surprised and off balance. And yet, no matter what we do, sleeping at 1300 for first break will never work for being rested at the end of the flight. This fatigue is a challenge, and yet often I wonder.. are we evolving?
    Excellent post!

    • Not sure about evolving, Karlene. Lindbergh had problems staying awake while crossing the Atlantic at night and so did I. The appropriate quote might be the captain who told his copilot, “I better not wake up and find you sleeping.”

      • Yes… evolving was a joke. The reality is, we are and will be fatigued. The solution is, how to mitigate it. I love that quote! I might have to put it in my next novel. lol

  2. Great post!

    It never ceases to amaze me how the government has it’s minimums (gov’t and minimums are like peas and carrots) which are 9 times out of 10 so ignorant we try and shield our children from them. Yet, you make a fantastic point about why the airlines blindly follow along with those minimums when they are the ones responsible for the equipment, lives on board and the ground and yes even the cargo.

    The good news is maybe some politician will read your blog and introduce legislation that brings cargo airlines up to the same standards as passenger airlines involving pilot fatigue while also mandating that all passengers buy the extra flight insurance. Better yet, maybe Mr. Obama can make this a part of Obamacare and mandate all earthlings carry some type of insurance against getting landed on by a plane.

    Thanks for the post, I always enjoy reading from your unique point of view. I will sign off with this: your books and blog posts are “evolving”, the human race is most definitely “devolving”.



    • Thanks for commenting, Harold. I’m sure as a business owner at The Franchise Connector, you have your share of government regulations to contend with. Well intenioned or not, the rules can be frustrating when based on a political agenda or a lobbyist’s interest. Reality would be a much more satisfying standard. The battle cry of “One standard of safety” between regional carriers and major airlines loses some of it’s steam when cargo carriers are excluded. We can only hope that sanity will somehow prevail.

  3. Harrison,

    I am one of your e-mail followers and read this on my phone almost immediately after you posted it. I have been remiss for not getting over here and making a proper comment.

    You are spot on and hyper accurate in your description of night flying. It is tough no matter how you sleep. As one of those whose company crafted the “cargo cutout”, I am not surprised at the sheer political power the major corporations actually have, nor am I disillusioned at how easily the Federal Government and elected officials are willing to trade public safety for personal gain.

    Concerning the pilots who live the life, I think it must be made clear that the professionalism these men and women have is second to none. They adapt to the stresses of the job, re-arrange their complicated schedules and find the time to get the rest their bodies need. I have found that for myself, the second day of a week long hub turn is the hardest because the body takes time to completely flip over. But after that day, I get stronger as the week progresses and by the end of the week I am sleeping nine hours a day.

    However a person sleeps, at 5AM everyone is tired. But there really is a difference between being tired and being fatigued. Even when I am tired, I can get fired up for the approach and landing. It might be only 30 minutes but I do believe that I am awake. Being fatigued is totally different, no matter what you try, you are not going to find your second wind. I have seen it in myself and in others. It is flat out dangerous and scary to look over at the other guy and see them nodding off during an approach or even worse just making the right moves with their mind dis-engaged from being an active participant in the flight.

    I don’t know the fatigue state of the UPS pilots. They might have gotten enough sleep or maybe not. Unless someone was in bed with them, we will never have the answer. But I know it happens despite what the FAA might say.

    This is a great topic and I wish the FAA would remove the cargo cutout, I know that the business model will remain in place. As to why I am up so late, posting. I am off to work next week and trying to slide my sleep scale towards the daytime. It is a glamorous life we live. ha ha.

    • Rob, I know you are on the front line of this issue and your insight is invaluable. Pilots are natural problem solvers and mission oriented and it’s always so frustrating to watch self serving bureaucrats piddle around the periphery trying to spin an agenda when the solution is obvious to the most casual observer. Sometimes I wonder if it is possible for the public to become more gullible. A Boeing 757 making a Cat III approach at 5 a.m. is indeed a Boeing 757 making a Cat III approach at 5a.m. It doesn’t matter what’s painted on the side of it or what’s loaded aboard. Anyone who doesn’t understand that logic can start calling their cat a canary and feed it birdseed. The powers that be have destroyed their credibility on this issue and it makes me wonder what other bovine excrement they are slinging.

      Thank you for a rational, clear headed comment with credibility and insight. I understand you are nearing the completion of your novel and there are those of us who urge you to do so post haste. Amazon needs the money and I need a good book to read. Fly safe, Rob, and enjoy the Boeing.

      By the way I’ve really enjoyed your blog series about your military flying experience during the recent unpleasantness in the Middle East. We are indebted to you, sir.

  4. How could any of this be better stated? It col’tnud.

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