White-knuckle airline passengers who are already shaken by news that two Northwest Airlines pilots are under investigation for overshooting a Minneapolis airport after possibly nodding off won’t want to hear this: Some pilots say cockpit catnaps happen.
“Pilots on occasion do take controlled naps,” said Barry Schiff, an aviation safety consultant and retired TWA pilot. “So this is not without precedent.”
Although the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits pilots from catching a few z’s in the cockpit, several airline pilots say they are surprised that napping mishaps haven’t happened more often, considering longer work schedules for pilots and advances in aviation that make planes easier to fly.
The issue of cockpit siestas came under scrutiny this week after the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board announced they were looking into why Northwest Flight 188, from San Diego to Minneapolis, overshot its airport by 150 miles before turning around.
Flying from the west coast last year, I sat next to an international pilot flying home. This pilot pounded coffee (POUNDED!) during our four hour flight. He mentioned the long Asia routes and the typical 36 hour turnarounds. I asked how they stay alert on 12 to 16 hour flights? He responded that cockpit etiquette is set by the captain. If he/she starts to read a book, then the others can do so. We never discussed falling asleep, though, based on the coffee intake, it would seem to be a natural outcome of these trips.