“The pilots of the Northwest Airlines Flight 188 were out of contact with air traffic controllers who frantically tried to reach the plane for 1 hour and 18 minutes only to realize that pilots had fallen asleep and went 150 miles off-course”
A news like this could send shivers down your spine but don’t be surprised if we say that you’ve very likely been on a flight with one of the pilots dozed off! Before your panic begins to take wings we have to break it to you. A pilot sleeping mid-flight is perfectly legal and outright important at the same time.
Demanding Flight Routine
It is time to go back and understand a key terminology called “Fatigue”. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines fatigue as - "A physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from sleep loss or extended wakefulness, circadian phase, or workload." To make it relatable, it is a feeling we get after being tired from a long busy day and sleep is all that we’re looking for. Airline pilots may have to perform upto 6 landings in a day and this turns out to be a tiring affair for most domestic sector pilots. International long haul flights could have been no better had it not been the second set of flight crew allowed to replace the initial pair.
Legalising the Cockpit Nap
Although both operational pilots sleeping at the same time was a nightmarish idea, one of them taking a power nap under a strict set of conditions was a very constructive thought. Every flight has a stage called approach phase, it forms the most critical portion of a flight, and a heavy-eyed pilot at that point could jeopardize the aircraft safety as much as an engine failure would. Sensing a possibility for such an occurrence, several pilot unions took it to the regulators to amend what it’s called as Flight Duty Time Limitations (FDTL). The provision of allowing cockpit naps made it to DGCA’s Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) in 1992. This was mainly a result of a ground-breaking NASA study that guaranteed an increased alertness after a 40 minute sleep before the approach began.
It would have been surprising if customers had not showered their disbelief on implementing such a scheme. As a result, the power nap was tactically termed as Controlled Rest (CR) with some stringent conditions that came with it. CR essentially allowed one of the two operating pilots to sleep for upto 40 minutes through the cruise phase. In the age of auto-pilot, the cruise phase is usually characterised by very few pilot inputs. Every nap taken is subject to reporting and made permissible only for the sectors that took more than 3 hours of flight time. One of many conditions that ratifies the rule being implemented thoughtfully is the condition for the pilot to be awake 30 minutes prior to the beginning of the descent phase. This aids in catching some time to orient before the critical phase starts.
Fatigue is an inevitable evil in the cockpit and rules have gone far enough to handle most situations well. However, there's no such thing as a free lunch, what's the catch? The downsides may include a direct impact on perceived safety by the potential customers. It could also hamper safety for real considering a case in which the functional pilot falls asleep due to cockpit inactivity in absence of an awake co-pilot. In spite of that, making the right operational choices for a smooth experience and drafting precautionary measures for contingencies remains the key to successful implementation of such a life-saving rule.
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