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Sleeping On The Job

Can pilots nap while on duty? Captain Lim Khoy Hing explains what happens in the event that some cockpit crew need a quick timeout.

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Recently, an interesting story about two pilots leaving the controls to two flight attendants while having a short nap in Business Class made the news.

     This happened on an Air India Airbus A320 flight carrying 166 passengers from Bangkok to Delhi on April 12, 2013. It seems that while the pilots were having their 40-minute break, one of the flight attendants accidentally turned off the autopilot, prompting the pilots to rush back to the cockpit.

     Before you get worried, I must stress that this is not normal practice. While it is perfectly safe for a plane to fly on autopilot by itself, flight attendants, when called into the cockpit, are not trained to handle emergencies that may arise.

     It is, however, standard protocol for at least one flight attendant to be in the cockpit when one of the pilots has a short washroom break. The flight attendant is there not to take over the pilot’s job but to immediately call the other pilot in the event that the pilot in the cockpit is not able to operate the plane for any reason.

Pilots & Power Naps 

This story reminds me of a question a flyer once asked. Can one of the two pilots take a short nap during a flight? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not explicitly prohibit in-flight napping on long haul flights but it doesn’t permit it either.

     According to a NASA study on fatigue, tired people can experience brief periods of ‘micro sleep’ – seconds or even minutes-long lapses when the eyes are open but the brain is on hold. This is not what you want when your tired pilot is flying a demanding approach through turbulence, rain and low clouds at the end of an eight-hour flight.

     On the road, some people may experience the ‘nappy’ feeling during a long and boring drive home. Many motor accidents have occurred as a result of tired and sleepy drivers. Fatigue is a killer. Similarly, there have been a few crashes in which tired pilots made crucial mistakes they might have avoided had they been properly rested. As such, short power naps can sometimes help to ensure drivers and pilots are alert at all times.

     NASA and the FAA have tested cockpit napping and found that naps of up to 40 minutes are both safe and effective for pilots on trips of more than seven hours. However, FAA decided not to pursue this idea vigorously due to the potential litigious suits that could arise should an accident occur while a pilot was napping!

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Flights attendants are not trained to pilot an aircraft and do not automatically take over even if both pilots are incapacitated.

Controlled Rest

Despite what certain authorities think, some airlines do permit ‘controlled rests’ or brief naps on long flights with two pilots, but it comes with a strict set of conditions.

     Amongst the restrictions, such naps should only occur during non-critical stages of the flight. In other words, such practices are allowed during the lean period of the cruise, for instance, not during any planned changes of flight levels, whilst performing a fuel transfer or at a period when there is a forecast of bad weather.

     Additionally, the autopilot must be switched on, the flight attendants must be informed of the pilot’s intention and the other pilot must be fully awake and remain in his seat at all times. A flight attendant must check-in over the intercom with the non-sleeping pilot every 15 minutes or so to ensure everything is normal.

     Once the safety procedures have been addressed, the pilot can take a nap of about 20 to 40  minutes in his seat in the cockpit. Note that some major airlines that permit such practices stipulate that this only applies to long haul flights of up to eight hours with a two-man crew.

Cockpit On Snooze Mode

On February 13, 2007, the pilots on board go! Airlines overshot Hilo airport in Hawaii; they admitted that they had fallen asleep in the cockpit while the plane was on autopilot.

     For about 18 minutes, air traffic controllers and other planes attempted to contact the flight crew but were unsuccessful. No one was able to communicate with the flight by radio.

     Both pilots lost their jobs after an investigation by the airline.

“NASA and the FAA have tested cockpit napping and found that naps of up to 40 minutes are both safe and effective for pilots on trips of more than seven hours. However, FAA decided not to pursue this idea vigorously due to the potential litigious suits…” 

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Flight Attendant To The Rescue?

The practice of having a flight attendant inside the cockpit to relieve a pilot who is answering the call of nature gives rise to another question – whether he or she is capable of flying a plane in the event that the flying pilot is incapacitated and the other one is stuck in the toilet.

     A flight attendant is generally not capable of flying a plane unless he or she is privately trained and licensed. Depending on the airline, the flight attendant is not normally allowed to sit in the pilot’s seat or manipulate any controls in the cockpit.

     The flight attendant sits in the reserve or jump seat to assist in other matters such as retrieving a manual at the back, reading the check list or being a communications medium during an emergency when the other pilot is unavailable.

     In the movie Airport 1975, a flight attendant is able to safely fly a plane with autopilot on until a replacement pilot comes to the rescue. In this movie, a Boeing 747 en route to Los Angeles International Airport from Washington Dulles International Airport collides with a small plane during the approach to land.

     Both the Boeing 747 and the Beechcraft plane are diverted to Salt Lake City International Airport due to bad weather in Los Angeles. During the approach, the pilot of the smaller plane suffers a massive heart attack, and descends into the approach of the Boeing 747. The captain is struck in the face by debris and blinded whilst the first officer is sucked out of the plane during the in-flight collision. However, the plane is still flyable.

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      The flight attendant rushes to the flight deck where the captain is able to engage the autopilot before losing consciousness. During the sequence, she is able to manoeuvre the plane away from the mountain while a heroic attempt is made to transfer a relief pilot from a helicopter.

     In the 1980s comedy film Airplane, passengers fall ill after having contracted food poisoning from eating fish. The cockpit crew, including pilot and co-pilot are also affected, leaving no one to fly the plane except the flight attendant. She contacts the control tower for help and is instructed by the tower supervisor to activate the plane’s autopilot to get them to Chicago. That is all she can do as she cannot land the plane.

     In the tragic Greek Helios Crash accident, which claimed 121 lives on board in 2005, both the pilots of the Boeing 737 became incapacitated due to subtle depressurisation that resulted in a loss of oxygen. The plane flew on autopilot for more than three hours until it ran out of fuel.

     Apparently, there was a flight attendant on board with some flying experience as he had a private flying licence. It was speculated that had he reached the cockpit in time, he might have been able to bring the plane down safely with some assistance from the ground – see my previous article Tom, Dick or Harry? published in the August 2012 issue of Travel 3Sixty°.

Awake, Alert, Alive! 

In case you’re perturbed by the thought of sleeping pilots, rest assured that AirAsia does not practise a sanctioned ‘controlled rest’ policy or allow pilots to sleep while on duty. However, we require all our pilots to be fully rested before operating any flight to ensure they are in top form.

     Happy and safe flying!

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Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.

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