It was one of those nights the high plains of New Mexico are famous for. The moon was waxing toward full, and there were thousands of stars vying for my attention as I climbed my Mooney’s wingwalk for the flight home to California.
If it hadn’t been such a long day, I might have better appreciated the sky’s spectacular display, but I was bushed. I’d been on the go since well before dawn. Mooney and I had departed Long Beach for Ruidoso, New Mexico, for an interview with Chief Wendell Chino of the Chiricahua Apache. Chief Chino was the U.S. government’s designated Chief-of-Chiefs, granted use of a Piper Cheyenne III turboprop to help coordinate and represent all Native American business with the U.S. government.
After lunch with the chief and a short formation flight over the Apache-run Ruidoso Downs quarterhorse racetrack for air-to-air photos, I hopped back into the Mooney and headed for Farmington, New Mexico, for a second story.
The subject was a construction equipment dealer who was convinced his Piper Chieftain was “the best damned business airplane ever built.”
We did an interview and a “magic hour” photo shoot, had a late dinner, and despite the subject’s suggestion that I should RON at the local Holiday Inn, I insisted on flying home. Big mistake.
I finally climbed away from Farmington at 10 p.m. into silk-lined skies and crystalline visibility with the nose pointed southwest over the Navajos’ sacred Monument Valley. Shiprock was the first of a chain of ghostly, volcanic formations to pass below. This was the quintessential “Old West,” John Wayne country. The monuments stood like stone warriors, guarding the route across the high desert toward Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon.
The Mooney was running perfectly, as I leveled at 12,500 feet and dialed up the autopilot to follow the bug toward home. I strapped on the oxygen mask, set the valve to 12,500 feet and watched the Southwest unroll beneath my wings in a night nearly as bright as day.
Arizona’s Painted Desert passed below, as the engine snored in my headset. (In retrospect, perhaps “snored” was all too descriptive.)
I vaguely remember switching tanks and watching the starlight glint off the Colorado River far below as I….
I woke up cruising above a deck of stratus. I had that confused, displaced feeling of wondering where I was, grasping at vague memories of…what? And how long ago?
I checked my time enroute and made a SWAG estimate that I must be well past Long Beach and out over the Pacific. Incredibly, I’d been asleep for at least a half-hour.
Mooney didn’t care. It continued to drone on obediently toward Hawaii, totally oblivious to the fact it would run out of fuel long before it got there.
I dialed up KFI on the ADF, a strong AM broadcast station, and the needle snapped from the parked position to point straight at the tail. I looked back and, sure enough, the broken clouds behind me were underscored by the lights of Los Angeles.
Fully alert now, I reversed course and landed back at Long Beach Airport, now closed, put the airplane to bed and drove home, reflecting on my poor decision to fly tired.
I, of all people, should have known better. In those days, I was flying 12- to-15-hour legs across the Pacific to Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Australia, and I’d never had a problem staying awake, probably because the consequences would have been almost guaranteed fatal. This time, I’d almost fallen into my own trap on a comparatively short, four-hour leg.
We’ve all heard stories of airline crews in Boeings and Airbuses falling asleep in the cockpit. While that might seem incomprehensible for highly trained pilots operating some of the world’s most sophisticated aircraft, it helps highlight the problem of fatigue in an industry we all assumed to be heavily regulated for crew rest.
Perhaps surprisingly, the speed of airlines works against them when it comes to providing proper crew rest. Traveling westbound, a typical Mach .83 airliner can practically match the speed of the Earth’s rotation. That means a Boeing 777 on a nonstop, 4,700 nm trip from Heathrow to LAX can transit eight hours of time change in a 10-hour flight. In other words, the crew has worked the full 10 hours, but the clock has only moved forward two hours.
While it’s true regulations demand airline crews receive prescribed time off between flights, the pilots may suffer from major disruptions of circadian rhythm, irrespective of rest. While the sheer number of hours between flights adheres to the intent of the regulations, the crews’ sleep cycles may not adjust to the new schedule before it’s time to fly again.
General aviation pilots certainly aren’t immune to some of the same ills, even if there’s no prescribed maximum span to our day. Most of the time, we don’t fly on a rigid schedule that demands operating at odd hours, and there’s usually little financial consequence if we delay our flight.
Similarly, our aircraft aren’t fitted with CVRs and FDRs to record every phase of flight, so if we make a mistake that results in an accident, NTSB may never discover the nature of the error. Too often, fatigue accidents remain unexplained, often resulting in CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) for no apparent reason. General aviation flights rarely exceed four to five hours, so circadian rhythm problems are comparatively rare.
Similarly, virtually all single-engine and many twin-engine private and corporate machines are certified for a single pilot rather than a two-person crew. Most often, there’s no first officer required to back up a tired captain, or vice versa.
Fatigue is frequently defined by one symptom, lack of sleep, when in fact, there are at least a dozen other factors that may affect a pilot’s ability to perform. The most common scenario is the one outlined above, a pilot or flight crew out of phase with their light/dark cycle.
Most of us are programmed to believe that daylight is the time to be awake and active, and darkness is the time to sleep. That can be a special problem for pilots who usually can’t regulate their schedule to fly only in daytime.
Flying is an intensive, technical pursuit that may demand critical decision-making throughout a flight, and that means any mental distractions such as finances, family problems, kids’ algebra grades, poor diet, politics or anything else that diverts attention from Job One can be catastrophic.
Pilots need to develop the habit of self-analysis, a sometimes difficult task when they may be trying to concentrate all their mental power on simply operating the airplane. As someone once said, “A man has to know his limitations,” and that’s doubly important when your life and/or those of your passengers hangs in the balance.
Some common symptoms of fatigue include a variety of anomalies: reduced visual perception, short-term memory loss, an inability to concentrate on more than one task, increased reaction time, impaired decision-making ability, depression, fixating on a single instrument, loss of confidence, personality changes and indifference to detail.
Accidents rarely have a single cause, and any pilot who’s flying tired may be helping to precipitate a chain of events that may compromise safety.
Just because the weather was perfect for my late night flight from Farmington to Long Beach, the airplane was happy and near new and I had two appointments in California the following day, I had no excuse for not overnighting in New Mexico. If I’d had a little less fuel aboard, if I’d dozed a little longer or if there had been a problem with the airplane, I might have crashed in the water and sunk to the bottom of the Pacific. No one would ever have known what happened.
Yes, I was on a VFR flight plan, but my error on my late night trip to Long Beach was failure to recognize that I was too tired to fly. The autopilot was doing exactly what it had been programmed to do. Unfortunately, in this case, artificial intelligence was simply no match for natural stupidity.
I should have taken a clue from my friend, Joe Thieland, owner of a law firm in Huntington Beach, California. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Joe often hired me to fly his Aerostar and deliver him and his staff attorneys to destinations all over the West Coast. Joe loved his Aerostar and sometimes flew it himself on weekends, but he was smart enough to understand that his job was medical liability law, not flying an Aerostar on demand.
Perhaps, ironically, when I fell asleep in my airplane, I’d never seen a checklist that included a stipulation: “Pilot physically and mentally qualified for flight?”
That’s certainly no excuse, but these days, no matter what airplane I fly, that item comes first on my personal checklist.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.