MIDWAY : Sleeping pilots

For some years it has been argued that the increasing reliance on automation in the cockpits of commercial airlines would eventually turn pilots into mere “machine-minders” who would become less skilled and incapable of independent judgment.

It has rarely been suggested, however, that they could get so bored they would fall asleep.

Yet this is precisely what happened on an Airbus A319 airliner, en route from Baltimore to Denver in 2004 (we are just hearing about it now thanks to a United States Congressional hearing into flight safety).

During the three-hour flight both the pilot and the co-pilot nodded off and were only woken by the frantic shrieks of air traffic control as they neared Denver airport on autopilot, at twice the recommended approach speed and well above the optimum altitude.

Once roused, they managed to land the plane without incident. The passengers never found

out, and no one else would have either, had the captain not filed an anonymous report.

It is oddly reassuring to hear that one can pass out at the controls of a jet carrying 140 passengers at 35,000 ft and still have a solid chance of a happy outcome.

But it seems that overwork may be more to blame than boredom, and that this instance of unscheduled pilot shuteye is no mere isolated example.

A year ago, a report by a Dallas, Texas, television station discovered that while Federal Aviation Administration regulations require a minimum of eight hours’ rest between flights, in practice this could mean less than three hours’ sleep.

They heard from one member of cockpit crew who actually fell asleep during take-off. “When air traffic control said something on the radio we both woke up,” recalled the pilot, “and I was like, oh my gosh, we’re already up here.”

Something needs to be done to ensure that pilots remain awake and alert throughout every flight on the off-chance that they will be needed for something.

Perhaps they could be allowed to play poker online, or maybe they should just move all the cockpit controls out of the nose and into economy.

Nobody ever gets any sleep back there.