Flying while pilots are sleeping

Maswood Alam Khan from Maryland, USA
Our life involves fears, anxieties, pains and sufferings. At various points in life, you will be faced with one or more of these issues that cause pains for you in one form or another and which you want to rid yourself of. Most of the times, those fears and pains amazingly melt away without any efforts or medications. But, there are some pains and fears which though you feel ashamed of expressing still simmer inside you. One such fear that nags at you, me and everybody else is the fear of flying in an aircraft.

However courageous or least devout one may be, any aircraft passenger who holds a little faith in God must mumble a prayer or recite at least a tiny verse from his or her divine book, praising God and seeking His mercy, at the time when the aircraft taxis on its accelerated run to take off into the air or glides gradually down from the sky to land on the runway of an airport – two most crucial phases in air flights when the probability of an accident is pretty high.

The news of a plane crash that I heard for the first time in my life was on a day in the late 1950s when I was a small kid. The pilot who died in the crash was my mother’s cousin; he was piloting a light Cessna aircraft that had hit a tall tree while flying at a low altitude, spraying pesticides on some paddy fields. From that day onwards, an aerophobia has crept up on me and I have since been gripped by a chilly feeling of panic whenever I plan to embark on a journey by air. Later, I viewed on television a number of investigative documentaries on air crashes, especially those computer-generated eerie imageries reconstructing the sequence of events along with human and mechanical errors leading up to the disasters. This escalated my aerophobia manifold.

With only a few days left for my undertaking a long-haul flight from Washington to Dhaka, a report that 43 per cent of pilots surveyed recently said they had fallen asleep during a flight has filled me with real dread, adding one more dismaying revulsion to the loads of my flying horrors.

The Daily Mail of London has recently published a report that nearly half of British pilots fall asleep in the cockpit while flying. Moreover, some say that when they woke up, they realised the co-pilot was sleeping as well! That is the finding of a poll of 500 members of the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA).

How would a passenger feel to find out at the end of his flight that the pilot and the co-pilot of the aircraft had slept at some point and (Oh my God!) in the same time?

The result of the survey appeared as some concerns were shown by pilots regarding a new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulation that will allow pilots to fly up to 24 hours without a break. Pilots fear that changes to working hours proposed by EASA could lead to pilots’ excessive fatigue and to more accidents. BALPA is fighting against the new regulation that may force European pilots to work more than their already-exhausting 16-hour shifts.

With a pilot’s 24-hour flight if you add in the commuting time from his home to the airport, say 2 hours, just imagine, the pilot who jetted you off to Washington or to Dhaka might have been awake for the past 26 hours! It’s appalling, isn’t it?

Even a truck driver, as I know, usually takes a break to sleep at least for 8 hours before he starts his next journey for at best 12 hours. It is very hard to imagine how an aircraft pilot can really concentrate during all those long hours while flying. Only a pilot knows what it is like to make a 24-hour piloting an aircraft, even on auto-pilot.

Perhaps the auto-pilot system in the modern aircraft is partly responsible for the pilots’ penchant for taking a catnap or their reflexive dosing off during a long-haul flight. Pilots, thanks to computer, and to our dismay, are forgetting how to ‘hand-fly’. The pilots are ominously relying too much on auto-piloting.

The autopilot system in a jet is a device that a pilot programmes in a computer to climb, descend or hold an altitude while following a specified route of flight. The system also includes auto-throttles, which maintain the speed of the airplane in cruise and adjust the power automatically for climbs and descents.

Veteran pilots usually don’t use the autopilot for a takeoff or while flying at an altitude below 1000 feet. Above that height, it’s the pilot’s option if he would like to use the autopilot or not. But a seasoned pilot likes to ‘hand-fly’ his airplane to much above 1000 feet before turning on the autopilot. The technology of autopilot enables a pilot to do only three minutes of flying, during only take-off and landing, if the pilot decides to autopilot his aircraft for the rest of his flight.

Autopilot system has unfortunately contributed heavily to the number of “loss of control” accidents, such as the crashing of the Air France flight 447, which nosedived 38,000 feet into the Atlantic in June of 2009, killing 228 people, including passengers and crew members.

According to a new study report by aircraft safety officials, “Automated flight systems and auto-pilot features on commercial aircraft are causing “automation addiction” among today’s airline pilots and “weakening their response time to mechanical failures and emergencies”. “This dangerous trend of pilots’ blind faith in auto-piloting has cost the lives of hundreds of passengers in some 51 ‘loss of control’ accidents over the past five years”, the report found. A study by the FAA says that pilots often “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.” It also found that in more than 60 per cent of accidents pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls.

Since the Wright brothers–Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright– invented and built the world’s first successful airplane and made the first human flight possible on December 17, 1903, thousands of accidents took place, killing thousands of people. The first man who died in the first recorded airplane fatality in history was Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge who was a passenger in a plane that was flown by Orville Wright, one of the inventors of airplane. The ‘US Army flyer’, a military aircraft, nose-dived into ground from a height of 75 feet on September 17, 1908. Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge was killed in the accident and Orville Wright was severely injured. Since then, airplanes crashed sometimes by bird strikes and lightning, sometimes by cabin fire and explosive devices planted by terrorists and sometimes by fuel starvation or a design flaw. But the most tragic accidents were those when pilots were incapacitated under pressures-physical or mental.

For timid people like me, however, there is something in the statistics that should give us some sense of relief. Some suggest that the media are a major factor behind fear of flying, and claim that the media sensationalise airline crashes, in comparison to the perceived scant attention given to the massive number of isolated automobile crashes. Statistics on various forms of travel show that airplanes are much safer than other common forms of transport per kilometre travelled. It is reassuring to know that commercial aviation is much safer than car or rail travel. In fact, one study concluded that it’s 261 times safer to fly from New York to Los Angeles than to drive.

You can’t, however, use risk statistics to convince one timid person that flying is safe. Even if the chance of something bad happening is a million to one, people like you and me are always worried about whether our flight is going to be the one that ends well or meets a disaster.

I know, my heart will be palpitating and I would be petrified by fears when I, along with my wife, would be boarding the plane on the 4th of March on our way home. I would be afraid of heights, of being over the rugged mountains, of imagining the aircraft plunging into an ocean, of a failure of the engines that may cause the aircraft to plummet to earth or of the unknown. Well, as usual, I will recite a verse from the holy Quran, begging Allah for our safe journey, as the Qatar Airlines jet will take off from the Dulles International Airport at Washington. Still, we should be prepared for any eventuality–no matter the jet is manually controlled or on auto-pilot or the pilots are dosing off. After all, we are all saved by the fickle finger of fate.



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