Dead tired

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Increasing numbers of accidents are citing pilot fatigue. While knowledge of its effects is growing, regulators are not listening


Accident reports timidly cite pilot fatigue as a causal factor rather than a cause because it can rarely be proven.

Even where it is given as a cause, science is never quoted as having provided the evidence that, under the circumstances, the crew would have been fatigued. When the US National Transportation Safety Board gave fatigue as the primary cause for the pilot mishandling that led to a Kalitta International McDonnell Douglas DC-8-61 freighter crash at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 1993, it was a judgement based on the fact that everybody knows 18h is too long a shift for a safety-critical job, especially when the pilot had suffered recent disruption to his circadian rhythms as well.

At the time the NTSB criticised the special rules in the Federal Aviation Administration regulations on crew duty that allowed an international cargo operation like this to slip through the crew duty safety net.

What safety net? At Kirksville, Missouri in October 2004, 13 people died because FAA regulations allowed a crew to fly six sectors from an early start on a 15h crew duty day operating a commercial passenger schedule that terminated in a non-precision approach in marginal weather at night. And they would still allow it today.

Everybody knows that six sectors and 15h is too long a shift for a safety-critical job, but the FAA still stands by its 16h maximum for an unaugmented crew. The experts who study fatigue, however, liken the effect on a pilot’s decision-making capabilities to the results of having a blood alcohol level that would see a car driver criminally convicted. The driving offence is socially unacceptable; but, if a pilot is drunk on fatigue, that, apparently, is socially acceptable.

The NTSB has been trying to raise the profile of fatigue for years. Yet it is so lacking in faith in the FAA’s willingness to do anything to correct the situation, despite the flood of new scientific evidence on the effects of tiredness that, in the Kirksville report, it recommends pilots should be given lessons in “fatigue countermeasures”. That is, recognise that you must be seriously tired at this point in a duty day, and make due allowances for it. The situation is preposterous: it is like the NTSB’s road transport department advising those car drivers who insist on getting drunk that they should recognise their inebriation and manage its effects.

The trouble with fatigue and alcohol intake is that both of them significantly impair physical and mental capabilities at the same time as they reduce the critical ability to recognise the evidence of impairment.

When the FAA set 16h as its crew duty maximum there was less competition in the airline marketplace, and a limit that was intended to be used occasionally when a rostered duty day is prolonged by weather or technical delay is inevitably being approached more frequently. A state of denial is one of fatigue’s effects. Perhaps the FAA is tired.