Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sleep & Airline Safety: Pilot Fatigue

Last week the NTSB opened the public docket on its investigation of the Oct. 21 incident involving Northwest Airlines flight 188. It was the second incident this year to focus attention on sleep, sleep disorders and pilot fatigue.

For 77 minutes the pilots of flight 188 had failed to respond to radio contact from flight controllers. Then the flight overflew its destination by more than 100 miles.

The pilots claimed that they were distracted while discussing airline policies. But had they fallen asleep?

The NTSB has not yet made a determination of probable cause. But the NTSB
interview summary reports that Captain Timothy Cheney went to a sleep disorders center about 15 years ago. He was seeking help for his loud snoring.

He was told that he didn’t have
obstructive sleep apnea. But he began to use CPAP therapy voluntarily to control his snoring.

The scenario is eerily similar to
an incident that occurred in 2008. A plane went 30 miles past its destination when both pilots fell asleep. One of them was later diagnosed with severe sleep apnea.

Earlier this year a
plane crashed in Buffalo, N.Y. All 49 people on board and one person on the ground died in the Feb. 12 accident. It raised concerns about fatigue among the pilots of smaller, regional airlines.

In June the FAA responded by
announcing an “expedited review of flight and rest rules.” The FAA also vowed to make pilot fatigue a “high priority.”

reports that regulations limiting flight time and pilot rest have been in place since the 1940s. An FAA proposal to update the rules in 1995 was never adopted based on “industry comments.”

In August the NTSB sent
safety recommendations to the FAA. One recommendation was to “implement a program to identify pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea.” Another was to conduct research examining pilot fatigue in “short-haul operations.”

The NTSB noted that these incidents are not isolated events. From 1995 to 2007 there were at least 17 reports of a flight crew member who fell asleep. In five cases both pilots fell asleep. And a 1999 NASA survey of regional pilots found that 80 percent admitted nodding off during a flight.

Image by caribb

1 comment:

Barb Chamberlain said...

The Washington State University Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane is studying pilot fatigue, performance, and fatigue risk management.

One study found that the more total sleep time one is able to achieve, the better predicted performance (in a mathematical model) will be, http://bit.ly/63fxvD. While our faculty don't conduct studies on people with clinical sleep issues such as apnea, it seems like a relevant finding.

Our lab is the only center in the world that can do controlled laboratory studies of sleep, wake, and work and the consequences of fatigue: http://bit.ly/WSUSleep

A podcast by assistant director Hans P.A. Van Dongen on the neurobiological consequences of sleep loss may be of interest too: http://bit.ly/7yUf7k

Director of Communications and Public Affairs
Washington State University Spokane

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